Ages and Stages: Stress — and Stress Reduction — from the Start
While stress is hard on adults, it is even tougher on little ones. Experiencing stressful situations and environments can disrupt brain growth and development, leading to problems with learning and behavior, along with mental and even physical issues. Fortunately, reducing and addressing stress in a child’s environment can have an immediate, positive impact. Here’s the lowdown on stress and the youngest members of the family — and what we can do to help:
Ages 0–1: From birth, babies are learning about safety and trust. Every time a parent or caregiver meets an infant’s needs, he or she builds bonds and learns that someone cares — and that stress is limited and manageable. The earliest needs in life include not only feeding and clothing a baby but also responding to a child by providing attention, affection, contact, and comfort to him or her. When an infant’s basic needs aren’t met regularly, he or she releases higher levels of stress hormones, including cortisol. Stressful experiences in early infancy and increased cortisol levels can have a permanent effect on the brain, impacting attention, memory, emotions and stress management throughout life. From the beginning, parents can decrease a child’s stress with physical contact, attention, quickly responding to hunger or discomfort, and not letting young babies “cry it out” when they are distressed. Soothing an infant with words or songs, playing, and holding him or her close help lower stress hormone levels, which will impact your child’s health and well-being for life.
Ages 1–3: From separation anxiety when leaving parents or caregivers to social anxiety in new situations with other children, from learning to use the potty to changes in the family such as a new sibling, toddlers are often stressed by new experiences. Toddlers who experience or witness conflict, violence or neglect at home; are exposed to traumatic events or scary TV or movies; or have a very stressed or depressed parent are especially vulnerable to high stress levels. Stressed-out toddlers may have delays with speech, cry, have frequent tantrums, or be very withdrawn. They may also have problems with concentrating, sleep, digestion, or getting along with or trusting others. When toddlers feel stressed, remember that offering reassurance and compassion doesn’t spoil children, but helps build self-esteem and teaches self-control. Encourage your child to talk about feelings. Also have a predictable schedule, allow plenty of downtime, monitor media-watching, provide hugs often, and limit arguing in front of children.
Ages 3–5: While preschoolers are busy learning, growing, and exploring their world and relationships with others, those who are very stressed may also have frequent headaches or stomach aches; become moody, disruptive, or withdrawn; have nightmares and other sleep problems; have trouble focusing; develop habits such as thumb sucking or hair twirling; begin bed-wetting; or become very clingy. Social issues at school such as bullying are tied to stress. For more information, see the article on bullying in this Parenting Guide. Conflict or changes such as divorce at home, the loss of a loved one (including both people and pets), and worries about bad things occurring (such as natural disasters, terrorism or being separated from family) can all cause preschoolers extreme stress. Talk to teachers to learn more about your child’s experiences at school; limit talking about your own fears, conflicts, or problems in front of children; spend special time together reading and talking every day; and work on creating a peaceful, positive environment for your family.
Breastfeeding Is Best — For Stress. Breastfeeding is known to be the best food for infants, providing all the nutrients and antibodies needed, at just the right temperature, for the best start in life. But did you know that breastfeeding releases hormones that lower blood pressure, enhance feelings of well-being, and decrease feelings of fear and anxiety for mothers? In fact, studies from Cornell University found that nursing mothers produce half the stress hormones of those not nursing.
Stress: Typical vs. Toxic. While everyone has some level of stress, excessive stress affects mental and physical health. Some stress — such as trying something new — helps children become resilient. But ongoing stress harms brain development and health. Fortunately, the damages of toxic stress can be lessened or even reversed if the stressful situation changes and the child has supportive, sensitive caregiving.