Can Babies Tell if You & Your Partner Have Issues?

by Cat Bowen

Sometimes, the stress of parenting can really stretch a couple to their limits. Being a new parent is hard work even on the easiest of days, and when you add in the effects of a strained relationship, that stress seems to weigh you down even more. But can babies tell if you and your partner don't have a good relationship?

The emotional IQ of babies is something that has been a subject of much research, from babies understanding and reading emotions on their parent's faces, to their perceptions of stress, to how they themselves emote — the studying has run the gamut. When you're in an unhealthy relationship, or even just a relationship that is going through a particularly stressful period in your time together, you may wonder how or if that is affecting your child.

A recent study published just a few weeks ago completed by researchers at the University of La Laguna in Tenerife, Spain, looked at the emotional and developmental impact of negative relationships on the brains of babies. In their years-long study into the mental development of infants and pre-term babies, they determined that babies are significantly impacted by the stress in their environment. According to the study, it impacts their emotional and physical development.

But can babies tell if you and your partner don't have a good relationship? A study conducted by the University of Oregon determined that babies not only understand when their parents are fighting, they internalize it, and it may have a profound effect on how their developing brain perceives and processes stress in the future.

The study also showed that babies were not immune to this stress as they slept. In fact, it seems as though babies' bodies and brains are able to sense the stress in their environment even at rest. This sort of prolonged toxic stress environment in early development has been shown to disrupt brain circuits, activating a cortisol response, and may lead to a cumulative effect on the physical and emotional well-being of the child throughout their lives, according to Harvard University.

A 2008 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family concluded that early exposure to marital conflict affects children beginning from the newborn stage, and continues throughout their lives. And it's not just the loud fighting. An article in the Journal of Brain Imaging found that babies are able to detect more than just squabbles and fights, but also loaded words. Their MRI images showed that babies react negatively to loaded words, and positively to positive words.

According to these studies, your child perceives more than you think. The University of Oregon study referred to babies' brains as "extremely plastic," or highly moldable. And the Journal of Marriage and Family article noted that parents need to be especially sensitive if they argue in front of their children because of the profound effects it has on their child.

If you're struggling in your relationship, especially as new parents, Psychology Today gave the advice to see a counselor, and talk to each other. Respectful language and coming from a place of love and understanding is paramount. Parenting is so hard. There is no right way to parent and no right way to be in a relationship as a parent, but you can only do your best, and try to provide an environment to allow your baby to become as emotionally resilient as they can be.