Infants are too young and immature to make sense out of words, but they are smart enough to understand the moods and emotions of their parents. In fact, parental stress translates to infant stress, as babies are able to pick up quickly on their parents’ vibes due to their extremely sensitive social barometers.
A parent with psychological problems can impose the most acute form of stress -called toxic stress- on their child, explains the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Toxic stress which can also result from persistent neglect and emotional abuse -perhaps when a parent feels overwhelmed by financial problems or relationship issues- can release stress hormones in an infant that can potentially alter the connection of brain circuits. In extreme cases, toxic stress can result in the development of a smaller brain. Chronic stress can lead to heart disease, digestive problems and sleep disturbances over the long term.
When parents let their personal problems get the best of them, they pay less attention to the needs of their infant, which can make the infant feel fearful and alone, says Andrew Garner, MD, assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Although an infant is clearly incapable of understanding the meaning of highly stressful events such as divorce, she is skilled at detecting changes in her parents’ moods and actions. Some parents sink into a depression following a separation and are slower to respond to their infant’s needs.
An infant is able not only to pick up on changes in his parents’ attitude or feelings, but he is also highly susceptible to catching their feelings, points out University of Missouri Extension. When a mom acts concerned or unhappy in the presence of her baby, her baby is apt to become sad and upset. A troubled baby may become fussy or disinterested in things or other people when he detects that his parents are distressed.
Receptive and supportive encounters with caring adults early in life can stop or undo the harmful effects of toxic stress response. When at least one parent is consistently supportive and caring, most stress responses are tolerable, notes Harvard University.