As a parent, you're likely tuned into your children and how they react to stress. What might not be so obvious, however, is how your baby’s distress affects your body.
“There is research about how a baby's cries impact its mother on a physical level,” Dr. Natasha K. Sriraman, a pediatrician and associate professor of pediatrics based in Norfolk, Virginia, tells Romper. Sriraman says one of the most common and easily observable examples of this impact is the uncontrolled let-down reflex of breast milk when a lactating parent hears a baby cry or, sometimes, even thinks of their child.
A mom's brain is also affected by her baby's cries. In a 2013 study published in NeuroReport, which observed brain activity in 18 different parents (male and female) while they overheard a baby’s cries, researchers found that the female brain response to infant hunger cries was significantly different than that of male brains. This response prompts females to action, while the males remained in resting states. It may explain why some female-identifying parents may rush to get a baby fed, while male parents do not. (Though that doesn’t mean male parents can’t learn to become responsive, but that’s for another study).
Simply put, a baby’s distress (in this case, their hunger cries) can affect a mom by simply causing changes in the brain that force her out of a resting state and propel her to act.
Samantha Radford, Ph.D., an exposure scientist with a focus in maternal-child health, of Evidence-Based Mommy, tells Romper that several regions within the mother’s brain are activated when she hears her baby’s distress signals.
"Mom's mirror neuron system is activated, meaning that her brain ‘mirrors’ what is going on in the child," she says. "So, when the baby is upset, it is easy for mom to get upset too.”
Radford stresses that the sound of a baby’s cry is the trigger, not the distress of the baby itself. This was demonstrated in a 2012 study published in the journal of Early Human Development that documented the cortisol levels of 25 New Zealand mothers and their babies through five days of sleep training. Crying decreased significantly by night three: the babies ceased crying after three days of unresponsiveness from their mothers but continued to show elevated levels of cortisol.
Meanwhile, the mothers’ cortisol levels were back within the normal range.
“On the upside, when a parent quickly and appropriately responds to an infant's crying, both adult and child have a release of oxytocin, the ‘bonding hormone.’ This effect is more pronounced between (birth) mother and infant, but still present with other adult/child pairs,” adds Radford.
A boost in oxytocin after birth and during skin-to-skin contact has been well-documented in humans. Researchers have found that higher levels of oxytocin can also change the way a baby’s distress affects some species.
In 2015, a study published in Nature documented the impact oxytocin had on female mice responding to the cries of baby mice: after being given oxytocin, the so-called “cuddle hormone,” the female mice, none of which were mothers, began to tend to the crying babies. “We found that oxytocin turns up the volume of social information processed in the brain,” explained Robert Froemke, the lead researcher, to The Guardian’s Hannah Devlin.
But what about other effects on a parent’s body due to a baby’s distress? As a mother myself, I can say with certainty that I have never dealt well with my own child’s distress. After birth, my son spent months in the NICU and I saw first hand what a difficult experience it was for him — despite him not really understanding what was happening. Watching him intubated, then using an NG tube for feeding, and simply knowing that there were times I was not allowed to pick him up and comfort him, was wholly unbearable. I know that even five years later, I still carry some of that trauma with me. At the time, his distress caused me so much emotional anguish, and increased my general anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from my previous loss. Stress has been documented to slow the healing process by numerous studies, including this 2012 paper from the Immunology and Allergy Clinics of North America. Feasibly, it took much longer than usual to heal from my birth injuries due to my child’s stress (and mine), though I couldn’t say for certain.
“Infant and parental distress is correlated,” says Amy Jackson, a licensed professional counselor with Sweet Grass Counseling. Jacksons explains that parents and babies can enter into a vicious cycle where an infant may become distressed due to a parent’s anxieties, which then causes the infant to become inconsolable. It can make it especially difficult for a parent to provide their baby any comfort, which puts parents at risk of developing mental health conditions like postpartum depression.
Jackson, who specializes in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, confirms my own experiences with developing and/or exacerbating mental health issues due to birth and postpartum trauma.
“Parents experience PTSD-like symptoms when their child has been admitted to NICU or experienced a traumatic birth. Parents may experience flashbacks of the birth, dissociation, hyperarousal, recurrent dreams/nightmares,” says Jackson, who is based in South Carolina. She adds that some parents report intense fear, loss of dignity, horror, and loss of control after such incidents.
A baby’s distress, therefore, can manifest in many ways in a parent’s body. From raising cortisol levels to potentially causing or exacerbating mental health issues, it’s clear that there are definite impacts on parents when their baby is in distress. Not every reaction is "bad," however.
If you feel that you are becoming overly distressed by your baby’s cries, seek out help with both childcare as well as for your own mental health. Jackson says that being unable to effectively deal with a baby’s distress (especially due to the development of postpartum depression) can lead to long-term effects, such as difficulty learning to self-soothe down the line, having more fear and anxiety when faced with adverse situations, and failure to thrive.
Radford also recommends responding to your baby before they’re deep into a “full-blown crying spell.”
“Feeding after an early hunger cue like smacking lips makes baby more secure and less likely to cry in the future. As they say, ‘Babies who cry less, cry less,” says Radford.