Reducing Stress For You And Your Baby

November 4, 2013

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Posted in: Infants & Toddlers

There are few events as stressful (and wonderful) as the birth of a new baby, and the subsequent adjustments to family life in the first year.  I’d like to spend some time talking with you about stress and how to deal with it, both for your baby, and for yourself as a caregiver.

Stress is subjective, depending on the individual’s personality and experience.  What one person finds to be an exhilarating challenge can be utterly terrifying for someone else.  There are three factors that have been shown to affect whether or not we experience an event as stressful: controllability, predictability and social support.  Let’s consider each of these in turn, as they relate to infants and their families.

Controllability

When something upsetting is happening, how much control you can muster over the situation greatly affects how stressed out you will get.  In a wonderful experiment, 12-month-old babies were shown a mechanical toy monkey that noisily crashed cymbals together at the push of a button.  The first group of babies was able to turn the toy off and on by hitting a panel.  The babies thought this was lots of fun.  The second group of babies was not able to control the toy; a recording of the noises was played, but they couldn’t turn the toy on or off.  These babies cried, and tried to get away from the toy.

Sometimes you can increase your child’s sense of control by giving him limited choices.  A toddler may not want to put on his sweater, but he has to because it’s cold outside. You can ease the situation by asking, “Do you want to wear your red sweater, or your blue one?”

Predictability

Even if you can’t control a situation, it helps to know when something unpleasant is going to occur, and what the limits of it are.  Children who have been badly burned must undergo frequent painful dressing changes.  These children actually heal faster if the nurses who change the dressing wear a different outfit than the regular nurses.  Since the children can predict when they will be experiencing pain, this also allows them at other times to relax, feel safe and let their guard down.

There is a very important take-home message here for caregivers: When babies are experiencing separation anxiety, but parents have to leave them (at daycare, for example), it’s very tempting for some parents to sneak away while their baby is playing, thinking, “He’s happy; why should I upset him by telling him I’m going to leave?  Why create a scene?” The reason to tell your baby is that, if he looks around and finds you gone, he will begin to feel anxious all the time.  Now he will have to keep his eye on you because he never knows when you might disappear.  If he knows that you will tell him when you are leaving, and when you will be back (even though he can’t understand the words), and then you return regularly, he will begin to understand a predictable routine and pattern in his life that allows him to better handle the stress.  This is also why little rituals like blowing a kiss or waving bye-bye, or singing a lullaby at bedtime, help to increase the predictability and reduce stress.

Social Support

When your baby cries, a quick response from a concerned caregiver reduces his distress.  Even if your baby continues to be miserable (for example, due to colic or teething), having you there is a source of comfort.  When your baby gets his shots at the doctor, he will release much less stress hormone if you hold him in your arms than if he is held down on the examination table.  Adults, too, benefit from social support.  It’s important to seek out others to talk to about your stressful experiences as a new parent.  Having someone who empathizes with your situation, provides comfort, and helps to put the situation in perspective, can be a powerful stress-reducer.

Stress is an unavoidable part of life; there is no such thing as a stress-free existence. When you or your baby is under stress, it will help to ask yourself the following three questions:

  • “How can I gain some control over this situation, or give my baby more of a sense of being in control?”
  • “How can I help to create some order or predictability in this situation for myself or my baby, even if I can’t prevent the unpleasantness?”
  • “How can I provide more social support to my baby, and seek some for myself as well?”

The information in this article was adapted in part from the Erikson Institute Faculty Development Project on the Brain, “Stress, Coping, & Caregiving” Module, by E. Davis and M. Gunnar (unpublished teaching materials). 

Geri Fox, M.D., M.H.P.E., F.A.A.C.A.P.

Geri Fox, M.D., M.H.P.E., F.A.A.C.A.P.

Geri Fox, M.D., M.H.P.E., F.A.A.C.A.P. is director of Psychiatry Undergraduate Medical Education, and assistant dean of Graduate Medical Education at University of Illinois at Chicago. Dr. Fox's clinical practice philosophy is to be a family's psychi...

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