Friday, February 7, 2014

The Effect of Parental Stress on Babies and Young Children

By Sue Heron Paediatric Physiotherapist and Trainer for Tatty Bumpkin Ltd

There have been several articles in the press this week based on the results of recent research conducted in America on the effect of parental stress on young babies and children. The research certainly does make interesting reading....

Researchers at the University of California recruited 69 mothers and their 12-14 mth old babies and investigated the effect of maternal stress on their infants. 

As predicted, mothers who received negative feedback on a talk they gave (frowns, crossed arms etc.) reported greater decreases in positive emotion and greater increases in negative emotion than did mothers who received either positive feedback on their talk (nods, smiles) or no feedback. The negative feedback group also showed signs of increased cardiac stress.

The infants quickly picked up on this parental stress response i.e. 
  • Infants whose mothers received the negative feedback showed significant increases in heart rate relative to baseline within minutes of being reunited with their mothers.
  • Crucially, the infant's response tracked the mother's response – that is, the greater the mother's stress response, the greater the infant's stress response and this association actually became stronger over time.
In addition, the researchers noted that there are a variety of different pathways through which these stress emotions might be communicated, including odour, vocal tension, and facial expressions. They are now currently investigating the hypothesis that ‘touch’ plays an important role in emotion contagion.

Commenting on the study the lead researcher Sara Waters noted

 "Before infants are verbal and able to express themselves fully, we can overlook how exquisitely attuned they are to the emotional tenor of their caregivers. Your infant may not be able to tell you that you seem stressed or ask you what is wrong, but our work shows that, as soon as she is in your arms, she is picking up on the bodily responses accompanying your emotional state and immediately begins to feel in her own body your own negative emotion."

Well nothing you do not know already – I'm sure! But this research does highlight the importance of Mums, Dads and carers:
  • Becoming more aware of their stress levels and 
  • Taking the time to try and control their stress levels. 
Of course so easy to say but so hard to do - But I think these are two very good reasons for attending a Baby/Tatty Bumpkin class if possible!

In these classes you will get advice on relaxed handling techniques and how to walk in a relaxed way whilst carrying your baby (the ‘relaxed walk’) as well as having the opportunity to relax with your child in a supportive environment.

 Relaxing in Tatty and Baby Bumpkin classes

Find your local Tatty Bumpkin or Baby Bumpkin class at

For the press release on this study see  for the abstract see
Ref "Stress Contagion: Physiological Covariation Between Mothers and Infants" Waters, S. West, T. Berry Mendes, W. Psychological Science. Jan 30th 2014.

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