Can Your Baby “Catch” Stress?


All loving, nurturing parents want the best for their children and for their babies to feel safe and loved at all times, but there are times when babies feel stress just as any adult would. Studies we have looked at before discuss the physiological effects that an abusive environment can have on children long-term, but what about children who don’t live with extreme circumstances such as abuse or poverty?

One recent study out of UC San Francisco found that not only do babies pick up on the stress of their mothers, but they show signs of physiological changes too. “Our research shows that infants ‘catch’ and embody the physiological residue of their mothers’ stressful experiences,” says lead researcher Sara Waters, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry.

In a study of 69 mothers, each with a 12 to 14 month infant, mothers and infants were separated. The mothers then gave a five minute speech followed by a five minute Q and A session to a panel. Some of the mothers received positive feedback such as smiles and nods, some received negative feedback such as frowns and head shakes, while others received no feedback at all.

Predictably, the mothers who received the negative feedback felt more stress after the exercise at which point all were reunited with their infant. When cardiac activity was compared to baseline tests taken beforehand, the mothers who had a more stressful experience showed increased cardiac stress, as did their infants who showed significant increases.

Importantly, the stress seen in the infants directly linked with that seen in their mothers, proving just how attuned they are to their caregivers before they become able to express themselves properly verbally. They may not be able to ask what is wrong, but infants are picking up on bodily responses as soon as you hold them in your arms and are reacting themselves to the emotions they feel from you.

While researchers have already found that emotions are communicated in a variety of ways to infants such as by smell, facial expression and vocal stress, more research is being conducted to determine the importance of touch to the contagion of emotion.

For parents and caregivers out there, this research provides more reason for you to employ effective stress management techniques for yourself. Stress can transfer across generations and may have long-term health implications…