Babies and children, in general, are like sponges. They soak up every little detail from the world surrounding them and are also incredibly capable of picking up on emotional cues from other people. It’s their way to understand the world. So, if you feel that your baby is watching you, trying to figure out how to react to a given situation, you are right. Babies are indeed tuned in to their parents’ emotions. 

Whether a baby’s feelings mirror his caregiver’s emotions and if parental anxiety affects the baby’s sleep is a question that will concern almost every parent at some point in their life. So, what is true about this issue? Does stress spread from parent to child causing sleep problems in babies and young children or are those two not so connected?  

Truth be told, we all have some stress. However, how you deal with it and how healthy your response is to it can contribute to your baby’s emotional growth or cause sleep (or other) problems.   

Let’s Talk About Stress 

There are two primary categories of stress

  1. Positive and tolerable stress – This ranges from low-level anxiety (think about how you feel when you are waiting to have your blood tested) to more intense stress that you can still control. Also, just enough stress to give you drive, motivation, and purpose. 
  1. Toxic or chronic stress – It is severe anxiety from a particularly painful event in your life that goes on for quite some time, like neglect or abuse.  

According to paediatric experts, toxic stress is the most harmful. It affects your well-being and consequently impacts how you care for your baby, especially if you are feeling stressed out all the time. You can probably see it happening in your own life. Are you just as responsive to your baby’s cues when you are under a lot of pressure (compared to the times you are calm and more relaxed)? And, when that anxiety overcomes you, don’t you notice that your baby is somewhat alert too due to the less sensitive caregiving he receives?   

Your Baby Takes Cues From You 

Children constantly look to their parents for hints to help them interpret situations that they don’t know how to respond to. When the parent seems fearful and anxious all the time, the baby (and later, the growing child) will determine that there are plenty of things around him that are unsafe. Children growing in an environment that feels hostile/perilous become reserved and closed up inside while having a hard time trusting and nurturing healthy relationships with others. So, being a parent in a state of anxiety for a prolonged time can be much more than just temporarily unsettling for the little one. It can actually affect his emotional state, making him be under constant stress.  

Without a doubt, thinking that despite your best intentions, you pass your own stress to your baby is quite hurtful. This is when many parents start feeling guilt, which can only make things worse. It is not easy to manage anxiety. However, it is not impossible either. There are ways and strategies to control your own stress, help your child manage his, and block the transmission of your anxiety to your child as effectively as possible.  

What Does Research Have to Say? 

Babies and mothers have a strong bond, and it is expressed in various instances in life. In a study, babies were kept apart from their moms for a little while. At the same time, the mothers had to undergo a stressful task. When they were reunited with their little ones, the babies also showed signs of stress.  

Now, we all know that a baby’s sleep problems can cause tension in the family. Sleep deprivation is common among most parents of infants and young children. If you lack sleep for a long time, you may start exhibiting signs of depression due to the hormone imbalance that occurs when the body does not get sufficient rest time when it was supposed to shut down and regenerate its cells. In such extreme situations, it has been found that depressed or even just stressed mothers may cause sleep issues (or make the existing problems worse) in their baby, instead of the other way around.  

The reasoning behind this finding is quite interesting. Due to their worry and anxiety, stressed moms tend to pick up their baby at the slightest sound (even if the infant is not distressed) or when he is asleep and feed him, when, in fact, the infant is not in need of attention or really upset. Others, cuddle their child at night or take him into their own bed, worrying that he was not comfortable enough or that he needed settling. However, in most cases, it is not the baby that needs emotional comfort, rather than themselves. The same study concluded that the sleep of children whose mothers had more worries about their baby’s sleep was actually more disrupted than those with a calmer mom. Worried moms also have a hard time setting limits with their babies both at night and during bedtime. In any case, the final outcome is the same – you and your baby do not get enough sleep. And, it has been evidenced that sleep problems which stretch beyond early childhood can negatively affect many different aspects of the child’s development, be it behavioural, emotional, or academic functioning. 

 So, the interactions between you and your infant vary quite significantly when you are anxious or worry too much. Bottom line, the calmer your bedtime routine is, the more peaceful and less disrupting your baby’s sleep will be.  

Taking Control of Your Stress 

The first step is to figure out what triggers your parental stress so that you can effectively address the issue before it transmits to the baby or younger child. Some of the most common stressors include: 

  • Financial stress 
  • Personal health worries 
  • Time demands 
  • Parental responsibilities and managing them 
  • Career stress 
  • Relationship or marital stress 
  • Uncertainty  

Ways to Manage Your Anxiety 

  1. Take Care of Yourself – To be able to take care of your little one, it is essential that you put the focus on you. Make sure you get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, and drink plenty of water. If you are well and happy, everybody in the family will be content too!  
  1. Learn stress management methods – It is crucial to be able to cope with your own anxiety before you can communicate a sense of calm to your baby. You may practice deep breathing exercises, yoga or guided visualisations. A mental health professional can also walk you through effective stress management methods per your particular needs. Being taught stress tolerance is a big step towards helping your anxiety-suffering child (remember, your kid takes cues from your behaviour).  
  1. Communicate your anxiety – Although your child should not witness every single stressful moment you have, hiding your emotions all the time is also not healthy. If the child is old enough, it is okay for them to see that you are dealing with a stressor every now and then provided you give him a clear explanation why you reacted the way you did. It is perfectly human to get frustrated sometimes. The success lies in the way you show your little one how you cope with stress. This allows him to feel that occasional stress could be part of normal life and also sends the message that it something manageable.  
  1. Remove yourself from the stress-factor – Knowing when to disengage is vital. If you know that something causes you unnecessary stress, you may want to stay away from that situation so your little one won’t consider it as unsafe and distressing. If, for example, you are overwhelmed with separation anxiety when you drop your kid to school, it might be best to have a co-adult do it for you until you get over it. That way, your child does not see your worried expression when he leaves for school, and consequently, he will not think that dropping him off at school involves some danger.   
  1. Surround yourself with a support system – Being a parent of an infant is stressful enough as is with all those new responsibilities and worries to think through. If you are struggling with your own anxiety, it is challenging to be the parent you want (and can) be. But, you need not have to do everything alone. Rely on the people around you that will gladly give a helping hand when you feel overwhelmed, be it your friends, parents, co-parents, or therapists. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Those that care about you will want to see you as happy and balanced as possible and won’t hesitate to step in if needed. Online forums, blogs and social media are also excellent sources to seek support. 

Your baby has this incredible ability to pick up on your emotions. Being always in a state of overwhelming stress can affect not only your own well-being but also your baby’s sleep and development. Try to manage your anxiety, soothe your worries, and find ways to relieve stress and it will all work out great for you and your little one.