Infants might not be able to process their feelings, but they can pick up on yours. A new study published in Psychological Science shows that babies can track and "catch" Mom's emotional state. We know that stress can trickle down, but what does that mean for your infant?
Photo credit: monkeybusinessimages/ iStock/360/ Getty Images

Stress is a highly subjective term. It's difficult to measure because we all have different limits and coping strategies. We can only handle so much stress, but how much stress we can handle varies from person to person. One thing that seems to be fairly common is parental stress.

Parenting is one of the most rewarding jobs in the world, but it can be stressful at times. Specific triggers of stress will vary. While some parents fall apart at the first sign of a meltdown, others can handle the tantrums but struggle to keep up with the demands of busy schedules involving multiple children. Stressors also change by age and stage. Eventually those tantrums seem to fade into the memory, but suddenly bullying and difficult teacher-child interactions are on the radar. It's a lot to manage, and recognizing when you're under stress is the first step toward finding a healthy way to cope with it.

The stress of caring for a newborn, however, can be overwhelming. Parents of newborns tend to feel isolated. It can be hard to take a shower on any given day, forget about trying to get out the door. The demands of newborns are constant. No matter how you choose to feed your newborn, they eat constantly. As a result of all of that eating, they poop constantly. They get worn out from both of those newborn activities, so they sleep all day and are ready to party the night away. The result? Exhaustion. Sleep deprivation. Physical symptoms of stress. And more isolation. Who wants to go out and greet the world under those conditions?

We know that stress trickles down from parents to older children, and now it's apparent that infants are also subject to that same effect.

A recent study published in Psychological Science shows that we need to take parental stress seriously. The results of the study show that infants pick up on maternal stress and can actually "catch" that stress from parents. We know that stress trickles down from parents to older children, and now it's apparent that infants are also subject to that same effect. We need to help new parents learn to recognize their stress levels and learn to cope with stress effectively to stop the stress cycle.

Symptoms of stress

When you're constantly overwhelmed with newborn care, it can be difficult to stop and assess your own emotional well-being. Are you feeling stressed? It's hard to know when something always seems to need doing and quiet moments are few and far between. It helps to know some of the potential symptoms of stress. Given that we all have a different threshold for stress, symptoms of stress will manifest in different ways for different people. There are a few categories of symptoms that are worth considering:

Emotional symptoms include^

  • Excessive worry
  • Difficulty relaxing (even in a quiet moment)
  • Feeling overwhelmed or out of control
  • Easily agitated or feeling angry often

Physical symptoms include^

  • Loss of appetite
  • Frequent headaches
  • Frequent stomachaches
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent colds
  • Rapid heartbeat and/or chest pain
  • Grinding teeth at night and/or clenched jaw
  • Loss of sexual desire

Cognitive symptoms include^

  • Forgetfulness
  • Anxiety
  • Racing thoughts
  • Lack of focus
  • Negative attitude (pessimistic) 

The important thing is to look for big changes. Do you feel overwhelmed more often than not? It might be time to seek help.

Mobilize support

Seeking help for newborn care is the sign of a parent that is strong enough to admit that it isn't easy and help would make for a better day.

People love to help out during the first couple of months of a newborn's life, but then the help starts dwindling. Suddenly you're left to care for this little package of love that seems to need you every second of every day. This is the time to mobilize the troops. They say that it takes a village to raise a child. I might add that it takes a village to save a mom from excessive stress.

When you are under stress your baby is likely to cry often, be fussy and have difficulty with things like feeding and sleeping. When babies internalize stress, they become even more difficult to care for. Instead of waving away those nice neighbors who offered to come hold and walk the baby, sign them up for a shift. Accept the meals. Phone a friend when the crying won't stop. Seeking help for newborn care is not a sign of weakness or poor parenting skills. In fact, it's quite the opposite. It's the sign of a parent that is strong enough to admit that it isn't easy and help would make for a better day.

Professional help

Postpartum depression is very real and can be very debilitating. It can leave a new mom feeling completely overwhelmed, hopeless and even suicidal. Seek immediate help from a licensed mental health practitioner if you feel hopeless and/or overwhelmed more often than not when caring for your newborn. Whether your symptoms fall under the category of stress or depression, the sooner you get help and learn to cope with your emotions during this difficult transition, the better off you will both be.

More on parenting

Parenting style and internet addiction
How parental anxiety affects kids
Happy moms raise happy kids

Topics: