How Stress Affects Your Baby's Brain

by Julie Snyder

Baby's BrainJust like adults, babies get frustrated, anxiety-ridden, and intensely emotional when things don't go as planned.

Hunger, pain, too much stimulation, too little attention and even the volitile emotions of their parents and strangers can trigger your baby's coping mechanisms.

Threatening or unpleasant triggers jump-start our "fight or flight" responses. When you're threatened, the brain signals the release of two chemicals, epinephrine and cortisol.

Typically the body responds by trying to get enough blood to your muscles to escape. If you're cornered, you might lash out, but your brain's real goal is to get you out of harm's way.

In an adult brain, the frontal lobe takes action and chooses a rational response to the threatening situation. A baby's frontal lobes are not fully developed and can't respond rationally to the trigger. Young children's responses are controlled by the more primitive areas of the brain. To handle the incident and return to a calm state, your baby relies on you for comfort and reassurance.

When your baby lives in an emotionally stable home, the fight or flight systems hooks up perfectly. If not, the normal coping mechanisms completely collapse.

What's Happening in Your Baby's Brain?

The hyper-alert baby: A baby who experiences frequent angry outbursts or lives in an emotionally tense situation becomes hyper-alert. If your baby regularly experiences anxiety or chaos, the brain becomes wired to quickly react to threatening or stressful situations. Even after the threat is gone, the brain continues to respond.

Continuously elevated stress hormone levels in infancy are associated with negative affects on the brain. Prolonged exposure can lead to learning difficulties, delayed brain development and later, difficulties dealing with life's demands.

Statistically, kids consistently exposed to a highly tense and unhappy environment are more likely to show antisocial behavior and aggression when they enter school. They have problems focusing their attention and have few tools for self-soothing. These kids are more prone to health problems and at an increased risk for depression and anxiety disorders.

The under-reactive baby: A baby exposed to severe neglect responds differently. The child becomes under-reactive. Babies in communist Romanian orphanages were seldom held or given deliberate stimulation. They had zero opportunity to bond with a caregiver. These quiet babies shut down, often staring blankly into space.

Living in a Combat Zone

You don't have to live in a battle zone to see negative changes iin your baby's brain development. All you need is two parents who wake up looking for a fight and continue throwing emotional punches all day long.

According to John Medina, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research in Seattle, marital conflict is fully capable of hurting a baby's brain development.

Babies younger than six months can usually tell when something is wrong. They experience increases in blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones levels. Some researchers claim that they can tell the amount of marital fighting by taking a 24-hour urine sample of the baby.

Lowering the Levels

While the affects can be long-lasting, popping up even in adulthood, they are reversible. Babies younger than eight months show improvement in hormone regulation in as little as ten weeks when they're taken from severely traumatized homes and placed in empathic, nurturing environments.

All you have to do to improve your baby's demeanor is commit to a combat-free zone. Does that mean you can never disagree with your mate? Fortunately for us, it does not. Research shows that children need to see you patch up the conflict. Kids who see parents reconcile learn both how to fight fair and how to make up.

Calming and Comforting Your Baby

Your baby can find safety through bonding with you. A little touch goes a long way. Studies have shown that babies who receive frequent physical affection have lower overall cortisol levels.

Furthermore, researchers say they have also found that responsive parenting during the first year of a child's life can counter the effects.

If you're upset by finances, relationships or your job, your baby might sense your upset and react. What have you found best reassures your tiny one?