Stress in Infancy: Examining the Baby Bond

By G Rieger Posted March 14, 2014  Last Updated November 12, 2016

What causes stress in infancy, how do we know what happens when we are not able to attend to a child’s cry with parental attention or immediately feed an infant when the infant is hungry?  Does the amount and quality of human attention, touch, and stimulating play affect the quality of the adult years?  These are the questions that recent studies and laboratory research has given us a reasonable explanation of what the infant experiences and how that experience travels with them into adulthood. 

The emotional bond between mother and child is the first and for most important factor that will shape a child's growth and development.  The research shows that a strong bond between mother and child nurtured during fetal and infant stages can reduce stress, boost immunity, increase IQ, and even prevent disease.  Dr. Chopra has even said that the force of hugs and kisses lovingly lavished on the infant child is more powerful than thought. 

Neglect and abandonment create stress in infancy, the bond developed between a mother and a child within an average family during a balanced daily routine is the foundation for this discussion.  The relevant factor for much of the research that will be looked at is the release of cortisol in infants.  Cortisol is a stress hormone and when elevated in a Childs blood work indicates stress.  

Short term separation from the baby’s mother or mother figure if bonded to another caregiver such as a grandmother or adoptive mother can cause stress in infancy.  Relevant findings from animal studies have demonstrated that biochemical changes and brain cell death occur during periods of decreased skin stimulation, isolation from a mother figure and withholding breast milk.  The scientific community has established that life experiences and genetic makeup effect behavior.  What is most important to understand as a parent or caregiver of a newborn is that the daily routine during infancy has been linked to adult behavior, hormone regulation and stress.

From the Beginning

The very first moments of life outside the womb are as important as the emotional and environmental state of the mother during pregnancy.  The mothers’ biochemical state from conception to birth has a lifelong effect on her offspring.  The infant has been programmed by hormones released during the birth process.  The interaction of drugs used during labor has an effect on this natural hormonal process.

During the first moments after birth the initial imprinting of the infant mother bond takes place.  An infant has already become accustom to the sounds of their parent’s voices.  Verbalizing conversation with a fetus during pregnancy from mom, dad and the extended family members is a positive calming experience. 

The immediate sound of mothers’ voice, feeling mothers’ warm skin, heart beat and smell are vital to positive imprinting and has a calming effect on the infant while lowering cortisol levels.  Lowering cortisol levels at the point of birth by the very presences of mom during the first moments of intense alertness in the infant will continue to dictate the infant's response to stress.  The baby can already separate faces from other objects and will gaze intently into the mothers’ eyes if allowed to do so. 

The stress in infants can be greatly reduced in the moments after birth in settings where the mother is allowed to hold and comfort the new born. It is vital that mom nurse the infant soon after birth.  The infant is best supported by nutrition and immunity building colostrum found in mother’s milk.  The development of a healthy flora in the digestive track will help to defend the infant from microbes in the environment. 

Why Bonding Matters

Research has demonstrated that child care methods have a profound impact on emotional and physical development.  Dr. Tiffany Fields, director of the University of Miami Touch Research Institute has established through over 100 studies that touch plays a role in infant development and stress in infancy.  Biochemical programming begins the bonding process during the fetal stages and at birth that creates an imprint on the mother by the release of specific hormones. 

The good news is this initial bonding response when nurtured by providing warm touch, full body contact, familiar smell and sound will reduce stress in infancy and mature over time into a loving and respectful relationship.  The most important lesson to be learned from these studies is that even though nature has an awe inspiring plan, the stress created by adverse birthing events can be mitigated.  When the programming is not followed through with by close, nurturing contact the increased stress levels in an infant can lead to developmental and behavioral issues.

In our modern world we have relied heavily on advice that has emphasized feeding schedules that do not take the individuality of the specific infant's needs into consideration.  We try to fit the baby into our busy schedule on our terms not theirs, with a little attention and common sense we can get into touch with the infants needs and rhythms.  Natural breast feeding provides the infant with the tastes, smell, nutrients and hormones that support the infants needs and enhances bonding. 

When it is necessary to bottle feed it is important to remember that removal of physical contact with the infant induces stress.  Stress in infancy can occur when babies are left with a propped bottle.  A study has found that these children have higher cortisol levels than the control group who received positive touch and contact during feeding.  An increased cortisol level establishes stress in infancy and children left unattended during feeding may develop digestive issues.

Although attitudes are changing, it is still common for a newborn to experience long periods of separation during the day and night inducing stress in infancy.  The current research is impressive, results indicate that consistently high levels of direct contact with a newborn can change genetically induced stress reactions.  The most current studies indicate that stress in infancy can be reduced by constant contact.  A group of infants three months old were provided constant care and reported lower cortisol levels than the control group who received varied care giver response times. 

In a related study of 18 months olds who were classified as insecurely attached and often unresponsive recorded high levels of cortisol.  When this same group of children was tested at age two they still reported elevated levels of cortisol.  Important research conducted by Dr. Gunnar concluded that the infants stress response shaped their brain patterns and directly affected their emotions, attachments and memory patterning. 

Why Does Bonding Matter? Shaping Baby Brains - Stress Regulation in Infancy and Toddler-hood

The Results of Stress in Infancy Can Be Mitigated

The research shows that when infants do not experience constant touch stimulation from parents, they not only suffer stress in infancy, they fail to receive the benefit of oxytocin surges and the influence of other positive biochemical secretions.  If for whatever reason the initial moments after the birth of your infant were not met with positive oxytocin bonding between you and your infant, positive contact and nurturing can provide the imprint needed.  An awareness of your baby’s needs is crucial.  Take the time to bond with your newborn, kids grow up fast and the first months and years of their lives will establish their innate response to stress throughout their lives.

Take time to unwind and limit your own stress levels.  Make time to encourage touch, play with your infant on a daily basis.  Good habits require a daily repetition for a minimum of 21 days to be anchored in an adult’s behavior.  Children do not come with an owner’s manual, an abundance of information is available on stress in infancy and how to bond with infants and children.  The quality of interaction with a child can improve at any time during their lives with a positive impact. 

Behavior organization begins during the fetal stages a sense of wellbeing and connection to the physical, social structure is nurtured and developed from the experiences of the mother during pregnancy.  The new life developing within the mother's womb is a literal live wire experiencing sound, light, taste which is connected to smell as these operating systems come online.  Learning what emotional reactions are within the family unit, present and more aware than we could ever have imagined.

Just as when a traumatized rescued dog or cat can be re-socialized and integrated successfully into a balanced family unit so can an infant who has experienced depravation or trauma.  Nurture can rewrite the hormonal programing that the child's natural experience to that point has provided.  Love & support within a balanced consistent home life can impart the hormonal bonding that leads to a balanced internal emotional and biochemical state.  The earlier these experiences are provided for within the child's life the greater likelihood the positive experience will lead to a balance adult life.

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Resources & References

H. Anisman et al., “Do early-life events permanently alter behavioral and hormonal responses to stressors?” Int J Dev Neurosci 16, no. 3–4; Jun–Jul 1998

C. Caldji et al., “Maternal care during infancy regulates the development of neural systems mediating the expression of fearfulness in the rat,” Proc Natl Acad Sci (Canada) 95, no. 9; Apr 1998

M. Carlson and F. Earls, “Psychological and neuroendocrinological sequelae of early social deprivation in institutionalized children in Romania,” Ann N Y Acad Sci 807; Jan 15, 1997

M. Deuschle et al., “Effects of major depression, aging and gender upon calculated diurnal free plasma cortisol concentrations: a reevaluation study,” (Germany) Stress 2, no. 4; Jan 1999

L.D. Dorn et al., “Biopsychological and cognitive differences in children with premature vs. on-time adrenarche,” Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 153, no. 2; Feb 1999

M.R. Gunnar et al., “Stress reactivity and attachment security,” Dev Psychobiology 29, no. 3; Apr 1996

M.R. Gunnar, “Quality of care and buffering of neuroendocrine stress reactions: potential effects on the developing human brain,” Prev Med 27, no. 2; Mar–Apr 1998

L. Hertsgaard et al., “Adrenocortical responses to the strange situation in infants with disorganized/disoriented attachment relationships,” Child Dev 66, no. 4; Aug 1995

L.J. Luecken, “Childhood attachment and loss experiences affect adult cardiovascular and cortisol function,” Psychosom Med 60, no. 6; Nov–Dec 1998

K. Lyons-Ruth, “Attachment relationships among children with aggressive behavior problems: the role of disorganized early attachment patterns,” J Consult Clin Psychol 64, no. 1; Feb 1996

M. Nachmias et al., “Behavioral inhibition and stress reactivity: the moderating role of attachment security,” Child Dev 67, no. 2; Apr 1996.

H.J. van Oers et al., “Maternal deprivation effect on the infant’s neural stress markers is reversed by tactile stimulation and feeding but not by suppressing corticosterone,” J Neurosci 18, no. 23; Dec 1, 1998

G. Spangler and K.E. Grossmann, “Biobehavioral organization in securely and insecurely attached infants,” Child Dev 64, no. 5; Oct 1990

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