Babies, stress and healing - Part 1

Remember gazing into the eyes of your baby?  For just a moment, did you feel a sense of peace, deep love and timelessness?  As your baby grew into a toddler and then into a child, did those moments become fewer and fewer?  Have you ever wondered why this happened, or whether it was possible to encourage those moments to become more numerous again?  

Babies and children are highly sensitive, and they easily experience events as stressful.  However, they have a natural ability to heal from stress and trauma by expressing their feelings and being listened to with empathy.  It is not so much difficult events themselves that are traumatic, but when parents do not realise what their baby or child is feeling and do not respond with attunement and empathy. (Firman and Gila, 1997, Stolorow and Atwood, 1992)  “The natural processes of life, whether painful or pleasant, do not in themselves inflict non-being wounding – only empathic failures do this.” (Firman and Gila, 1997, 99)

If not given the opportunity to express their feelings and be heard with loving empathy, the resulting tension accumulates.  Babies and children then need to do things to stop themselves feeling and expressing.  They do this by dissociating from their feelings, or tensing up, or by vigorous movement.  These methods can be learnt, (eg. moving when upset as a toddler after being jiggled as a baby), or can be discovered when their feelings are not welcomed (eg. thumb sucking).  The more stress that accumulates, the more the child engages in these activities and the less present he becomes.  

When the child experiences something that is similar to an old stressful event, or when a new stressful event occurs that increases the accumulated tension, he will move out of being fully present, and into his habitual way of avoiding the feelings.  Much of the behaviour that we think of as normal in children (and adults!) is actually the result of stress that has not been healed (such as hitting, biting, lack of concentration, endless movement,  unwillingness to cooperate, and so on.) 

When upset feelings surface and are not given empathy and space, children lose connection with themselves and others.  They avoid eye contact, avoid connection, don’t want to cooperate or contribute, do things that they know the other dislikes, and hurt themselves or others.   

As parents, we can thus choose to contribute to our children in the following ways:

Protect them from stress wherever possible and meet their needs as much as we can;

Know that preventing our babies from ever experiencing stress is not possible, so aim to be aware of when our baby or child is feeling stressed, and be present and empathic with them.

Being present with ourselves, so that we can be aware of the difference between our feelings and those of our child, and so we can “mirror” their state of presence.

From their time in the womb onwards, babies can experience stress.  Pre- and Peri-natal research shows us how a pregnant woman’s thoughts and feelings impact on her baby.  “The unborn child is a feeling, remembering, aware being, and because he is, what happens to him – what happens to all of us – in the nine months between conception and birth moulds and shapes personality, drives and ambitions in very important ways.”  (Verny and Kelly, 1989, p.1) 

Stressful experiences accumulate from this time onwards.  It is important to remember though, that it is not so much the stressful events that cause trauma, but rather the lack of empathic connection.  For example, Verny and Kelly talk about the sensitivity of the baby in utero to the connection the mother feels with him.

Birth is often a time of stress for a baby, particularly if the mother experiences stress, if there is a sense of emergency, and if there are harmful medical interventions.  Levels of stress will vary for each baby, and can even occur with gentle, natural home birth, for example if the baby is in an unusual position, or if the birth is particularly short or long.  

The first several weeks after birth are often the most stressful for babies, as they move from the protected environment of the womb, where all their senses are shielded, to the stimulating environment of the world.  Simply being touched by the air, their skin feels intense sensations.  Leboyer, in his groundbreaking Birth Without Violence said, “[The newborn’s] skin – think, fine, almost without a protective surface layer – is as exposed and raw as tissue that has suffered a burn.  The slightest touch makes it quiver.  A newborn baby even trembles when someone comes near it.  Until birth, its skin knew only the uniform smoothness of membrane.  Then, suddenly, it is put in nappies, shawls, sheets.”  (Leboyer, 1983, p.18).  As do their eyes, ears, tastebuds, and nose.  Let alone the new actions of their digestive and respiratory systems. 

Imagine for a moment what you might feel as a small baby, where all you knew for nine months was dim lights, muted sounds, and the gentle touch of amniotic fluid and the inside of your mother’s body.  Then you are somewhere completely different, an experience you have no words or concepts for.  Imagine being in a pram in a shop, with thousands of different objects of different colours, many faces, unknown noises, and without a sense of being held by your mother.  Instead, imagine being wrapped inside a sling, next to your mother’s body, but still seeing many new sights and hearing many new sounds, with the new experiences of an emptier or fuller stomach.  Sit back and feel:

“Uneasiness grows.  It spreads from the center [sic] and turns into pain.  It is at the center that the storm breaks out.  It is at the very center that it grows stronger and turns into pulsing waves.  These waves push the pain out, then pull it back again.  The wind and the sounds and the pieces of sky are all pulled back into the center.  There they find one another again, are reunited.  Only to be thrown outwards and way, then sucked back in to form the next wave – darker and stronger.”  (Stern, 1990, p.32)

To be continued......


Firman, J. And Gila, A. (1997)  The Primal Wound.  A Transpersonal View of Trauma, Addiction, and Growth.  State University of New York Press, N.Y.

Leboyer, Frederick.  (1983)  Birth Without Violence.  Fontana, U.K.

Stern, Daniel. N.  (1990)  Diary of a Baby.  Basic Books

Stolorow, R.D., and Atwood, G.E. (1992)  Contexts of Being:  The Intersubjective Foundations of Psychological Life.  Hillsdale, N.J.  The Analytic Press.

Verny, Thomas, and Kelly, John.  (1989)  The Secret Life of the Unborn Child.  Sphere Books Limited, London.

First published in Kindred Magazine E-News, January 2009.