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Signs of Emotional Duress in a Baby

By Kathleen Northridge ; Updated June 13, 2017

Babies cry. They cry when they are hungry, wet, cold, etc. Generally a baby cries because it has physical needs. Sometimes, though, a baby cries because it has emotional needs. If those needs continue to be unmet, the stress can intensify to such a level that the baby exhibits symptoms other than crying. There are some indicators that a baby might be under this kind of duress.

Stress Leads to Duress

A baby can be under duress when his needs regularly go unmet or are unmet in a single incident for a prolonged period. The duress is the emotional reaction to the unmet physical need. Emotional stress can turn into duress if it is prolonged or acute. A baby conveys stress by being fussy, crying and moving in an agitated way.

Internal Biological Signs of Duress

An infant’s body releases cortisol in response to stress, just as an adult’s does. According to the Natural Child Project, “Cortisol can elevate the blood pressure and the heart rate, increase blood sugar, and interrupt digestive and kidney functions.” If these changes happen often or are intense, the baby can be under duress.

External Biological Signs of Duress

The signs of extreme duress in an infant might look similar to the signs of shock. Her heart rate might be elevated, and her breathing might be very rapid and/or shallow. Her body might appear limp, or she might almost stop moving. Her responses might be slow or nonexistent, and her skin might feel cold and clammy. She often will stop crying and appear emotionally distant.

Watch the Environment

A chaotic environment, with too many people and too much noise, is inherently stressful for an infant. Keeping the environment as calm and predictable as possible reduces release of cortisol. Stimulation is important, but it should be within a safe environment. When your baby comes into a new or chaotic environment, watch for signs of stress.

More Aware Than You Think

According to a study by the University of Toronto, young babies can remember traumatic events. According to the study, “infants can anticipate the stressful event based on expectations about how their parents will treat them,” which implies they are aware of a situation and can anticipate conditions in that situation. If your baby begins to show signs of agitation when his environment changes, he might be indicating that something about that environment caused him stress in the past.

Tend their Needs

The best way to prevent emotional duress in your baby is to be responsive to her needs. Babies need food and warmth. They need their diapers changed. But they also need close contact such as rocking, face-to-face contact and speaking. Unresponsiveness from a parent can cause an infant’s body to release cortisol. Being attentive to your baby can lessen the chance of stress and also let you know if she begins to feel stress.

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