Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Maternal Stress: How Does it Effect Baby's Stress Level?

Have you ever been around a person who is very stressed and found yourself tensed up after spending time with them? There is actually a scientific reason for these feelings. Scientists in the past have found that a person’s physiology actually changes after interacting or observing the stress of another person.  But what about your baby? Can he or she sense your stress level? A recent study was conducted to determine if infants “caught” the stress of their mothers. After inducing a stressful state in the mothers, researchers reunited the mothers and babies to see if the mothers’ stress changed the babies’ physiology. They also compared how a positive versus negative stressful arousal of the mothers affected the babies. Let’s look a bit closer at the study details.

Sixty-nine mothers of babies 12-14 months of age participated in the study. Researchers separated the mothers and babies and put the mothers through a stressful interview-type situation. Evaluators then gave either positive, negative, or no feedback to the mothers. Obviously, the mothers who received negative feedback experienced more stress and an increased heart rate. After the stressful experience, mothers were reunited with their babies. Soon after the babies’ heart rates were found to increase, as if they caught on that their mothers were stressed. The greater the mother’s stress response, the greater the baby’s; if the mother was exposed to a negative stress, there was an even bigger impact on her infant’s physiology.
While the authors admit that there is more research needed to figure out how this happens, the results are interesting. They hypothesize that babies may track their mothers’ emotions through changes in her smell, facial expression, or the tension in her voice. What do you think of this study? Have you noticed your baby picking up on the tension in your body? How does that affect your baby’s behavior?


Waters SF, West TV, Mendes WB. Stress Contagion: Physiological Covariation Between Mothers and Infants. Psychol Sci. 2014 Jan 30. [Epub ahead of print]

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