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Study: Chill out, Mom—Your Baby Knows You're Stressed

Study shows babies pick up on parents' emotional stress
Photograph by Getty Images/Wavebreak Media

New babies may seem pretty unaware of the world around them, but a study published this week in Psychological Science shows they're actually much more in-tune with what's going on than they seem—at least in matters where you're concerned.

"Our research shows that infants 'catch' and embody the psychological residue of their mothers' stressful experiences," says Sara Waters, lead researcher in the study and a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Francisco. "Your infant may not be able to tell you that you seem stressed or ask you what is wrong, but our work shows that, as soon as she is in your arms, she is picking up on the bodily responses accompanying your emotional state and immediately begins to feel in her own body your own negative emotion."

But if you think your stress is written all over your face, think again. The researchers say it channels itself in different ways—not just through facial expressions, but also through things like vocal tension and even odor. Even more interesting: researchers are now looking into ways in which our touch transfers emotions and communicates feelings.

For the study, researchers looked at 69 mothers and their 12- to 14-month-old babies. They then hooked cardiovascular monitors to both mom and baby, and after a few minutes, separated the two into different rooms. Mom was then tasked with giving a five-minute speech to two people while they evaluated her, followed up by a five-minute Q&A session. For some of the moms, the evaluators gave positive feedback in the form of body language; things like encouraging nods and friendly smiles. But for others, the evaluators gave some not-so-encouraging feedback, in the form of frowns and head-shaking.

For the moms who walked away after their speech having received nothing but scowls and looks of non-acceptance, their emotional state was understandably less positive. Their cardiac stress was also elevated. Once reunited with their babies, scientists could see how quickly the infants started to pick up on their mother's emotions, and watched at how their heart rate rose to match mom's.

While much more still remains to be explored, Waters notes that the study serves as a key reminder of just how strong the emotional bond is between a mother and her baby. "Our earliest lessons about how to manage stress and strong negative emotions in our day-to-day lives occur in the parent-child relationship," she says.

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