Babies have stress? Really?
We often assume that babyhood is a stress-free part of life because everything is done for the caring of a baby. However, this is far from the truth. Because of their sensitivity and vulnerability, they get very easily stressed or stimulated even though we as parents try our very best to reduce stress for the baby.
Babies who had gentle birth, had early bonding established by having skin-to-skin contact, breastfed exclusively, co-sleeping, carried close to her mother in a sling often and has her needs responded to promptly, would still experience mild stress or uncomfortable feelings.
Researchers have found that cortisol level (hormone that plays a crucial role in helping the body to cope with stressful or threatening events) are high in infants at birth and during the immediate pospartum period. The amount of cortisol then gradually declines until about six months of age. This implies that infants are very stressed at birth and become gradually less stressed. – from the book The Aware Baby by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.
In Aware Parenting, there are six major categories of stress that can cause a baby to cry:
Prenatal stress and birth
Studies have shown that newborns born to mothers who had been anxious or depressed during pregnancy cried more than infants born to mothers who were not. Pregnant mothers who had been under considerable ongoing stress such as living in poverty, frequent fights with spouse, being pressured to have an abortion, pressure at work or excessive worrying about the baby may experience their newborn crying more extensively than other infants.
Crying also could be a result from birth trauma. Babies born through a difficult delivery or being separated after birth may most likely be crying more than babies whose mothers experienced a more pleasant delivery. This extensive crying that occurs from a traumatic birth can be considered a biological stress-release mechanism.
This does not mean at all that if you had a traumatic birth experience, that your baby is scarred forever. Babies and young children can heal from these experiences so they don’t have to when they become adults.
Babies have very strong need to be touched and held. The more babies are held, the less they cry. Babies who have not been held as much as they need, may need to cry more about stress from earlier unmet needs. This can be confusing to parents because even if they held their baby, the crying does not stop. It is best to continue holding the baby while he is crying, so that he gets to do lots of healing while being held.
This explains why most newborns sleep better in their parents arms than being put down in a bassinet or cot. This does not imply that babies should sleep in their parents arms through the night. But offering that physical closeness is what babies need in order to fall asleep peacefully.
Newborns are particularly vulnerable to stimulation as they experience many new things every single day. They get visual stimulation (people, places, light), sound stimulation (phone ringing, TV, voices, cars), as well as touch and smell stimulation (clothes, swaddles, water, wipes, diapers, mom smell). Highly sensitive babies are also sensitive to the emotional state of their parents, caregivers or siblings.
These day-to-day stimulations may appear trivial to us but it’s pretty much a blow by blow type of stimulation for newborns. Uncomfortable feelings and stress start to build up and this would cause a baby to need a good cry to release these pent-up feelings.
It is in our nature to want to be competent and great at what we do. But for babies, the intent from mastering a new skill can get frustrating for them. Often parents will find that their baby goes through a period of high fussiness while their baby struggle to learn a new skill. Then once the skill is mastered, their baby seems happier until another bout of new milestone comes around again.
During this period, parents often claim that their baby’s increased fussiness is due to teething. But it isn’t always so. This fussiness sometimes these developmental frustrations may take weeks and becomes a source of continual stress for babies.
If you suspect that your baby’s crying is due to an illness or physical pain, it would be advisable to get your doctor’s opinion and diagnosis for it. If your baby is in physical pain, then do what it takes to help your baby relax by changing position, a feeding or giving a gentle massage.
However, if you suspect that emotional stress is causing the crying, then holding your crying baby would be most effective to help your baby heal. Allow him to cry in your arms as long as he needs to.
Again, teething pain could be possible and it may cause discomfort in some babies so they become whiny and fussy. But teething is not likely to make a baby cry inconsolably for an hour.
Emotional pain always accompanies physical pain because babies probably feel frightened and confused when they are in pain. The crying can last longer than the actual physical pain itself. – from the book The Aware Baby by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.
Other frightening experiences
There are things that take place that are beyond our control. The illness or death of a parent or separation after birth (even for a day) can cause a lot fear and confusion in young babies. Since babies are particularly vulnerable to their caregiver’s moods and feelings, they will be anxious in a highly stressful home where parents are anxious, depressed and absorbed in their own problems.
Some babies get upset even in a stress-free environment because due to their temperament that differentiates how they react to stressful events. Changes in routine, being in loud places, and on-the-go type of lifestyle can be distressing for them. If your baby is highly sensitive, go for predictable routine and peaceful environment to reduce her stress level.
Being treated like an object or a doll – getting picked up and passed around with no warning, getting their cheeks pinched and ridiculed can also be an additional source of stress for your baby.
Moving house, traveling, new daycare, new caregiver are also other sources of frightening experience that adds to the source of stress for babies.
Now that we know where the sources come from, we can try our best to keep the stress level to a minimum therefore reducing our baby’s need to cry. When we know why the possible reasons for our babies to cry after all their immediate needs have been met, we are able to support the crying and give our baby as much emotional safety to heal from stress. Our babies can become calmer and feeling more secured. Their bodies are more in a relaxed mode hence enabling them to sleep more peacefully for naps and at night.