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Mothers’ stressful experiences are contagious to their infants

Harold Mandel's picture
Mother and child

A mother's emotional state can have a great impact on the emotional well being of her baby. More and more mothers are aware of the vital importance of eating well while they are pregnant and of staying away from cigarettes, illicit drugs and alcohol around their babies. An even more comprehensive approach to raising a healthy child evolves around maintaining an awareness that the mother's emotional state can have a great impact on the well being of her baby.

Researchers have studied stress as a contagion between mother and child, reported Psychological Science. Emotions are not viewed as being simply concepts which live privately in the mind, but rather emotions are seen as affective states which emanate from the individual and may influence others. This has resulted in the development of the concept of affect contagion in the context of the mother and infant.

The researchers initially separated the mothers and infants. The mothers were assigned to experience different stressful positive-evaluation tasks, including:

1: A stressful positive-evaluation task

2: A stressful negative-evaluation task

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3: A nonstressful control task

The findings were compelling. The mothers who received negative feedback reported greater decreases in positive emotion along with greater increases in negative emotion than the other mothers. The mothers who received negative feedback were also found to show signs of increased cardiac stress.The infants picked up on this stress response quickly. The infants whose mothers received negative feedback displayed significant increases in heart rate relative to baseline within just minutes of being reunited with their mothers.

It has been suggested by these findings that mothers’ stressful experiences are contagious to their infants and that members of close pairs, such as mothers and infants, can have a reciprocal influence on each other’s dynamic physiological reactivity. In fact the infant’s response actually tracked the mother’s response, in that the greater the mother’s stress response, the greater the infant’s stress response.

Researchers have observed that for Infants, stress may be caught, not taught, reports the Association for Psychological Science in a review of this research on Feb. 3, 2014. It has been shown in this new research that babies not only pick up on their mother’s stress, they also display corresponding physiological changes.

Sara Waters, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Francisco, said “Our research shows that infants ‘catch’ and embody the physiological residue of their mothers’ stressful experiences.” Senior author Wendy Berry Mendes, the Sarlo/Ekman Associate Professor of Emotion at UCSF, has said that social scientists have been interested in how emotions are transmitted from one person to another for a long time.

Research in the social sciences has shown that emotions can actually be contagious. For instance emotional synchrony has been viewed between romantic partners. Tessa West of New York University, decided to extend this research by looking at emotional synchrony within the context of another significant close relationship, that which is seen between mother and child. Waters says that the parent-child relationship offers us our earliest lessons about how to manage stress and strong negative emotions in our daily lives.

I have often witnessed strong anxieties among expectant mothers which often carry on into the developmental years of the child. An appreciation that negative stressful states of mind in the mother can actually be contagious and lead to similar problems for her newborn baby raises an awareness of the need to counsel mothers about naturally healthy ways to relax. Eating nutritious foods, avoidance of alcohol, illicit drugs and cigarettes, and getting adequate exercise can all be helpful. Meditation and yoga can also be helpful. These natural manners to relax are always preferable to drugs whenever possible. Mothers should remember how they feel about things will probably have a dramatic influence on how their babies feel about things.