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A WORD ABOUT BABIES AND STRESS

A WORD ABOUT BABIES AND STRESS

April 1 2017

Stress. A word we don’t normally associate with babies (unless we have one of our own and they don’t sleep or eat or won’t stop crying!) What I mean is, we don’t normally think of babies experiencing stress but, just like adults, they most certainly do.

So what’s stressful for a baby, how do we help them at these times and what happens if we don’t?

So what’s stressful for a baby, how do we help them at these times and what happens if we don’t?

It turns out there are different responses to stress and, depending on how much young children are helped with these, their brains and development will be affected in different ways. Let’s take a look at the three main types of response to stressful situations:

  • “A positive stress response is a normal and essential part of healthy development, characterized by brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels. Some situations that might trigger a positive stress response are the first day with a new caregiver or receiving an injected immunization.
  • A tolerable stress response activates the body’s alert systems to a greater degree as a result of more severe, longer-lasting difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury. If the activation is time-limited and buffered by relationships with adults who help the child adapt, the brain and other organs recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects.
  • Lastly, a toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity - such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship - without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.” (Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University.)

What this means is that babies who experience a little stress every now and then - with, crucially, the help of a caring adult who notices and supports them with this - will not suffer any long term damage to their brains or development. It turns out a little (supported) stress in childhood can be a good thing because, let’s face it, stress isn’t something we can magic out of the world for our kids no matter how much we might want to.

Reassuringly, ZEROtoTHREE, a world authority on all things early childhood, advises parents, “Don’t fear ‘positive stressors’ - they build strong brains. Positive stress is brought on by the everyday challenges young children face, like figuring out a difficult puzzle or learning to adapt to a new child care centre or another new experience. Giving your child the time, space, and support to work through these challenges will allow her to master new skills, get along with others, and ultimately succeed in work, school, and life.” Just make sure you (or another trusted and supportive adult) are there to help your child make sense of these new situations.

On the flip side, if a child experiences ongoing major stressors, without the help of a loving adult close by to buffer this, the effects on their brain and development will be much more noticeable. We now know that toxic stress wears through a young child’s brain and body - with potentially crippling long term effects.

When a toxic stress response occurs continually, or is triggered by multiple sources, it can have a cumulative toll on an individual’s physical and mental health - for a lifetime. The more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and later health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse, and depression. Research also indicates that supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress response.(Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University.)

What all this tells us is that we shouldn’t wrap our kids up in cotton wool and never let them experience the discomfort of a little stressor. By coping with small, supported and manageable stresses, we help them build resilience and strong brain architecture.

What it also tells us is that relationships heal and it’s never too late for a child who might have experienced toxic stress to be helped through the power of love, understanding and support.

Let’s leave the last word to the experts, Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child:

“Learning how to cope with adversity is an important part of healthy child development. When we are threatened, our bodies prepare us to respond by increasing our heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones, such as cortisol. When a young child’s stress response systems are activated within an environment of supportive relationships with adults, these physiological effects are buffered and brought back down to baseline. The result is the development of healthy stress response systems. However, if the stress response is extreme and long-lasting, and buffering relationships are unavailable to the child, the result can be damaged, weakened systems and brain architecture, with lifelong repercussions.” 

To read a paper from the Brainwave Trust called ‘Stress: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, click here.

To find out more about early brain development and how relationships can buffer the impact of stress, why not sign up for our 6-session flagship course: Growing In Connection, now available either through PORSE Area Offices or 
online.