Infants, stress and non-responsive parenting


In most cases, they haven’t even managed to sit up by themselves yet.

However, six-month old babies become stressed when they do not receive the attention they feel they are entitled to.

Levels of cortisol, the main stress hormone, rise sharply when mothers ignore their babies. Even a day later, they become anxious that it might happen again.

Scientific research from Canada discovered that an infant, who is deprived of his mother’s love even for just two minutes, becomes anxious, and is afraid that his mother will ignore him again the next day.

Specialists in psychomotor development from the department of research of parents and infants at the University of Toronto state that repeated episodes of stress could have huge consequences for the child’s health throughout his life.

In order to research whether six-month old infants are capable of anticipating and predicting problems, Canadian researchers invited 30 babies with their mothers to the laboratory, and divided them into two groups.

The babies were put into car seats, and their mothers played with them, and talked to them as usual. Then, the interaction stopped for a period of 2 minutes, during which time mothers looked over the tops of their children’s heads, without responding to them, and without showing any kind of emotion.

The next day, mothers brought their babies back to the laboratory. Cortisol levels in the blood were measured regularly over the course of both days. The cortisol level in the children’s blood rose sharply when their mothers did not respond to them, and ignored them. Then the hormone’s levels dropped, before rising again when the babies returned to the laboratory on the second day, despite the fact that their mothers were not ignoring them.

A second group of infants went through the same procedure, but their mothers did not ignore them, not even for a second. Hormone levels in the blood of this group did not change.

The findings of the study indicate that when returning to the same laboratory the next day, babies who had experienced the non-responsiveness of their mothers anticipated repetition of the problem.

Head researcher Dr. David Haley of the University of Toronto stated: “Results show that babies, even at this age, are able to predict a future experience, and produce a stress reaction in advance, based on their anticipation of how their parents will behave towards them within a specific frame.”

Professor Jan Belsky of the University of London mentioned that factors such as depression can negatively influence the relationship between mother and baby, and increase the baby’s cortisol levels, again and again.

This may reduce the effectiveness of a child’s immune system, because a sustained increase of cortisol in the blood negatively affects the immune system. This kind of disturbed upbringing (with high stress levels) may also mean that the child, in turn, will become a less than perfect parent when he grows up.

What can we say to parents, regarding the daily care of their babies, while taking into consideration the results of such studies? We certainly don’t mean that parents should give 100% of their attention to the child all the time, which is impossible anyway. However, we should emphasize to parents, that deliberate, conscious attempts of not responding to a baby, who requests their presence, or asks to be held, as well as attempts to reduce their direct, prompt and appropriate responses to the cues and needs of their baby, from his first few months of life, with the intention of “toughening” the baby up, so as not to “spoil” him, to “train” him, or to encourage him to play alone, by himself, are dangerous for the physical and mental health of their child. Responsive parenting, attending to your infant’s cues and needs, is the key.

Source: Daily Mail, UK, 25/08/2010

Editing / Translation: Stelios Papaventsis MRCPCH DCH IBCLC 2010

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