Scientific findings show how parents react to crying babies can have an important impact on their development. Infants with parents who respond quickly, consistently, and warmly when they cry have healthy emotional development later on. These studies have suggested that responsive and sensitive parents can protect children from developing stress coping mechanisms. One study looked at babies born with predisposed stress-related symptoms and their parents, and concluded that even though there were risk factors in the babies for stress, they were able to be relieved with affectionate caresses during early infancy.
Quick and consistent response to a crying baby, referred to sometimes as “sensitive parenting,” might also make the difference between success and failure at school. Researchers have concluded that infants with relatively insensitive parents end up with the worst behavioral problems. At a chemical level, affectionate touch and other nurturing behaviors appear to trigger the release of feel-good neurotransmitters like oxytocin. With the release of these hormones, there is a fast recovery from stressful events.
As important as it is to respond warmly and quickly to a crying baby, it is also important to prevent the baby from being exposed to angry or fearful voices, negative body language, and being left alone in distress. Avoiding these stressful situations can also facilitate a baby’s learning and the development of positive social relationships. To better understand this concepts let us look at the physiological responses related to them:
Research studies have suggested that touch triggers the release of natural pain-killers and sedatives, thus counteracting the effects of stress. This is demonstrated in one study that looked that effect of a heel prick and signs of distress in infants. Once held naked against their mothers’ bare skin, the level of stress hormone levels was greatly reduced. Touch is vital, but more specifically the type of touch is also vital. For example, researchers have discovered that light touch in younger babies (two to six months old) can be irritating to them and so a firmer touch might be more preferred. The key is a gentle, slow, moderate pressure, a kind of infant massage. Touch is also more likely to soothe when it’s accompanied by other forms of affectionate contact.
2. Body language
Babies begin to recognize facial expressions immediately after birth. A large body of research indicates that babies prefer to look at happy faces, and are upset by displays of negative emotion. One study looked at six-month-old babies and found that they can distinguish between happy and angry body language, alternatively affecting their emotional development later on.
As noted above, all factors are important when trying to respond appropriately to crying babies, and movement is equally vital. One study showed that babies experienced slower heart rates and reduced crying when they were held by an adult who was moving or rocking them from side to side.
One common factor that contributes to babies’ crying is comfort and cleanliness. Many times a diaper change can be stressful for a baby which presents with a dilemma. Should you change the diaper, or let the baby sleep through with a wet diaper? Some researchers have suggested that unless your baby has a skin infection, there is no need to wake up a sleeping baby for a diaper change.
The World Health Organization recommends that infants under the age of six months sleep in the same room as their parents. This sleeping arrangement ensures that caregivers will be on hand if the baby is distressed or experiences a life-threatening event, and there may be other benefits too. Researchers speculate that having parents nearby at night may help babies regulate the stress response during the day.
For more information on the research studies discussed above, click here.