Stress: An overlooked cause of unsettled babies

When our baby cries, we immediately feel they must be hungry, tired, overstimulated or gassy? If it becomes a pattern, we might consider colic – a term often used for babies who cry excessively for no apparent reason. What if there was a reason? And that reason is to communicate stress or repressed emotions from early life experiences? Those that may have been stressful, painful or overwhelming for them, including birth? Our culture tends to ignore or deny the fact that babies experience stress and have emotional experiences that are every bit as complex and real as the rest of us. In this article, I explain how to recognise stress in babies (it’s not just crying), what kind of things can be stressful for babies, how the nervous system works and how to best to support babies through their difficulties.

How can you tell if your baby is stressed?

Here are some signs and symptoms to look for:

  • Excessive or inconsolable crying*
  • Tense muscles; frowning, arms rigid and in front of the chest, shoulders held up around the ears, tight jaw
  • Feeding difficulties eg. fussy feeding, cannot latch at the breast
  • Sleep issues eg. does not transition in and out of sleep smoothly, difficulty getting baby to sleep, waking with an intense cry
  • Exaggerated startle reflex
  • Tremors or shakiness
  • Hypersensitive to touch
  • Desire not to be held or inability to put baby down for even a few moments
  • Avoidance of eye contact

*Babies who have stopped crying or don’t cry very much are not necessarily stress free. Studies on babies during sleep training, have shown that the stress hormone cortisol remains high in babies who have stopped calling out to parents. I can palpate/feel an activated nervous system in a sleeping or quiet baby during a cranio treatment (more about that below). 

It is becoming more widely accepted that babies are conscious in the womb and are affected by the emotions and stresses of their mother. We tend to overlook babies experience of birth. We recognise that birth is a huge experience for the mother, emotionally and physically, but it is also for the baby. Often, before they are able to integrate the experience of the birth; ideally placed directly on the mother’s chest and left alone to rest – they also may then be subject to medical interventions that are both unexpected and confusing. There are a myriad of circumstances that babies may find stressful. Not all babies react to these events in the same way but simply being aware of the potential for stress and trauma is supportive for the baby.

What kinds of things are stressful for babies?*

  • Induction of labour via drip
  • Premature birth
  • Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) or Special Care Nursery (SCN) experience
  • Difficult births: being stuck during labour; long or fast births; assisted births (vacuum, forceps, c-sections)
  • Near death experience or deprivation of oxygen (including babies with intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR)
  • Medical procedures or hospitalisation e.g., circumcision, excessive oral exercises after tongue tie release
  • Abusive parental relationship
  • Prolonged maternal stress or depression.
  • Unintended pregnancy /ambivalence from either parent about the pregnancy / Being given up for adoption
  • Death in the family

*An Integrative Approach to Treating Babies and Children:  Multidisciplinary Guide by John Wilks

When I realised my son had unresolved stress in his nervous system from his early birth, this ignited my passion as a craniosacral therapist to help to ease unnecessary suffering in babies, and to raise consciousness of the existence of stress in babies. My first birth was highly medicalised and followed the typical cascade of intervention: induced (against my instincts) with a syntocinon drip….pethidine….epidural….episiotomy and he was pulled into the world via vacuum. He had a swelling on his head called a cephalohematoma. I was left traumatised from the birth, with lasting physical and emotional consequences but I did not fully consider the impact of the experience on the health and wellbeing of my son. Looking back, for months he would wake from sleep screaming as if he was being murdered. Plus he was a sickly child! Unbeknownst to me at that time, the birth had a lasting effect on his nervous system. When I finally discovered craniosacral therapy, he was ten years old and, according to the craniosacral therapist, his nervous system was in “global activation”, primed to fight or flight. Having now supported many infants with similar activated nervous systems and witnessing how quickly they resolve the stress during treatment, I wish he could have had the same release soon after his difficult birth. To say I wish I had known about it sooner would be an understatement!

Tuning in to the nervous system of babies

During a cranio treatment, I use my hands and body to tune into the nervous system. The nervous system will start to show me its patterns of experience.  An activated sympathetic nervous system can feel like an electrified buzz through the whole body, the heart can beat harder and faster than normal and the breath is either held, or rapid and shallow, and muscles and tissue are contracted. This is a survival strategy also known as fight or flight mode. The body cannot properly heal easily in a sympathetic “activated” state.

Babies are uniquely vulnerable, as they cannot run away or fight, so when the fight or flight response has not resulted in avoidance of the stressor, a baby may go into a freeze state. Freeze is a survival strategy activated by the parasympathetic nervous system, meaning the nervous system is shut down or dissociated. These babies can be floppy with low muscle tone or a ‘good baby” that cries very little and sleeps a lot. A baby whose nervous system is in freeze feels different in a cranio session – there is a fogginess or spaciness to the system at first until the body starts to attune with the therapist’s nervous system and remembers its healthy original blueprint. It can be common to feel subtle shuddering movements or muscles start to twitch as the nervous system unfreezes.

The ideal healing state is one of rest and relaxation. When the nervous system is in a parasympathetic state (not freeze), the breath is slower and deeper, the heart is in a coherent rhythm, and muscles and tissues soften. During a craniosacral session, this feels like a slow tidal rhythm of energy, expanding and contracting through the body and tissues. The body then starts to let go of physical and emotional restrictions.

What can we do to minimise stress/ trauma in babies?

Life is stressful! It’s impossible to avoid stress completely and it’s important to remember that not all stress is toxic – some stress is tolerable or even positive, fostering resilience and growth. Trauma is what happens when our nervous system becomes overwhelmed, often when something has happened too fast or for too long. Or because we simply felt alone or unsupported during an event. This story or imprint can remain cycling or unresolved in the nervous system. Understanding the nervous system and how to help it to integrate our stresses is important in order to avoid overwhelm.

A few ways to help your baby to minimise stress:

Stress in babies can be integrated healthily through responsive parenting – including communication, presence, listening, empathy, touch and communication.

  • Babies understand more than we know, they take great comfort in our tone of voice and understand the feelings behind our words. We can talk to them and differentiate our feelings from theirs eg. “I was really sad/stressed while you were growing inside me because (xyz) but this is my stress and it has nothing to do with you. Its not yours to carry. You can let it go. You are safe now”.
  • They can feel our grounded presence and calm nervous system. While we can’t always be in a calm state, we can take a few moments to feel into our body; feel our feet; feel our seat and be an embodied presence during their difficult moments.
  • Any medical procedures for babies need to be carried out with compassion – ideally with parents present or soon after. Choose your practitioners wisely.
  • Simply acknowledging that our babies might be expressing emotions rather than present moment needs (eg, hungry, dirty nappy), can support babies. They know if we “get it” as they are very much n tune with the feelings of the people around them. Naming the emotion can be helpful eg “I can see you are feeling angry right now – I hear you” “Is that how it was for you? Tell me, I’m here”.
  • Babies tend to need a slower pace, so slowing potentially stressful experiences down is supportive. Letting babies know what is coming up for them is an empathetic way to prepare babies for events. We can even talk to them inutero and let them know of an upcoming c-section or induction.
  • Can we be present to strong emotions in our child? Are we quick to shush them? We can notice our own triggers and tendencies and have compassion for ourselves. We too, may have unresolved early traumas, with many of us being left to cry it out as babies.
  • As mothers/primary caregivers we also need support for ourselves too. Eg. support through family and friends, or cranio support to calm our own nervous system. A doula is a great investment for your birth – supporting your process supports your baby inutero.
  • Touch and close contact increase oxytocin levels. Oxytocin (the love hormone) is the antidote to cortisol (the stress hormone). Things like skin to skin contact, baby wearing and safe co-sleeping are healing for babies. However, some babies may be tactile defensive, meaning that touch is a trigger for stress, maybe its just on certain parts of their body. You can still provide support by being physically present and using less tactile means to instill a sense of security. Or being careful to avoid touching any sensitive areas.
  • Oxytocin is also released during breastfeeding, in both mum and baby. Many babies regulate their nervous system by feeding frequently at the breast, so where possible allow unlimited access to the breast. Other babies will act out their stress at the breast – with fussy feeding or latching issues – these babies greatly benefit from a combined lactation/cranio consult.
  • As parents we would rather suffer than see our children suffer. It hurts us to know they may have suffered unnecessarily or without appropriate support at the time. It is never too late to heal though! Even adults can heal their early life trauma with the right support. Cranio is a great way to access and resolve these early imprints.

As a culture we have a history of overlooking infant stress, forgetting that babies are sensitive beings that are having their own experience of their environment. On an unconscious level, the nervous system just wants a feeling of safety to be restored; to rest, to slow down, to feel supported. Our calm “parasympathetic” nervous system then assists the intelligence of our body to heal itself. Studies have shown the long-term impact of early life stress can lead to increased risk of anxiety disorders, cancer, substance use, heart disease, immune disorders, social struggles and relationship problems. Acknowledging and resolving stress in early life has the potential to change this trajectory.

Babies who have not been able to integrate their stress may greatly benefit from cranio treatment.   Having cranio sessions in the first few months of life can make a significant and positive impact to both their present and future wellbeing.

Get in touch if you feel your baby needs more support.

For a more in depth look at this topic, I highly recommend Mia Kalef’s book It’s Never Too Late : Healing Prebirth And Birth At Any Age and The Secret Life of Babies : How Our Prebirth and Birth Experiences Shape Our World