Babies Can Catch Stress from Their Mothers

And 5 tips for your baby to catch your calm instead.

The rule of three suggest that after you spill coffee on your blouse and forget your groceries in the trunk of the cab, there is still another catastrophe awaiting you… and it’s likely a meltdown from your infant. It’s not that the universe is conspiring against you, but rather another phenomenon called stress contagion.

A recent psychological study confirmed a link between your stress levels and your infant’s emotional distress. The close relationship you share with your baby subjects you to emotional convergence, meaning she picks up on your feelings and responds to them as if they were her own. And these emotional cues are actually transmitted through physical touch. So your involuntary stress responses, such as muscle tightening or a distracted gaze, serve as a blaring signal that your affective state is compromised. This tension then gets transferred to your baby, who then ends up stressed and without constructive ways of coping with these feelings, becoming agitated. This is why it can feel your little one is piling on after an already lousy day.

The good news is, your baby can also catch your calm. We have four tips to help you quiet your distress and transfer tranquility so you stop stressing yourself and your baby out.

1. Take a no touching time out. If you are feeling emotionally heightened, put the baby down. Now that we know you can transmit your feelings through touch, you need to wield this power carefully. Don’t stress about getting stressed. You have to give yourself some time and space to cool down. It is essential to attend to your own needs so you can be there to help those who depend on you, otherwise you both will go down. Give yourself permission to separate from your infant for a minimum of 60 seconds (although a 5-minute time out works even better). During this time, engage in deep, relaxation breathing to restore your emotional equilibrium.

2. Give yourself a non-negotiable night of sleep. It is scientifically proven that it is harder to attend to your emotional wellness without satisfying your basic need for sleep. A restorative night sleep makes it easier to fight off stress triggers and helps maintain your composure. If you have trouble winding down try taking a bath and, an hour before you want to fall asleep, kiss your cellphone good night and tuck it away, preferably in another room so you won’t be tempted to check it. Lastly, make your room as dark as possible, with blackout shades or an eye mask. Taking charge of your sleep hygiene not only improves your overall mental health, it also makes you feel invigorated during the day, giving you the energy to be a better, more relaxed mom.

3. Steal your kid’s colored pencils and crayons. Another great way to switch off your brain and anchor yourself in the moment is an adult coloring book. Turn on relaxing music or a podcast and tune out your stressors. Coloring and doodling can be a great stress-buster, as it can help you dip your toe into the pool of mindfulness, which can then even out your stress levels throughout the day.

4. Say no without the guilt. Saying no is a valuable weapon to fight stress and an empowering way to get your authentic needs met. Otherwise, making decisions that are in conflict with your genuine desires will result in anxiety and distress. Keep in mind, saying no is a skill that you can work on — the more you exercise this muscle, the stronger you will become.  So when a friend makes an ask that you probably won’t want to indulge, then be honest with them and say no. No reason needed.

5. Turn the tables on emotion contagion. If all else fails, use emotion contagion to your advantage. Create a tranquil environment for you and your little one and join them in a relaxing activity like reading a book or singing together. Since you and your baby’s stress experiences are dynamically influenced by one another, helping her achieve a calm mood will inevitably lead to your authentic feeling of contentment.

Lindsay Liben

 Lindsay Liben, LCSW, has a private therapy practice near Union Square, focusing on women’s issues including depression, anxiety, and life transitions. She believes that by helping her patients get in touch with their most authentic selves, they can make choices that set them up for personal and professional success. Learn more about Lindsay and her work on her website.

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