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Understanding 'toxic stress' in infants

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Stress is generally defined as anything that causes physical, emotional or psychological strain. We’ve all experienced stress in one way or another, whether it’s physical stress from exercising, mental stress from work, emotional stress from a fight, or the hundred other things that stress us out. This is no different for infants, and it’s important that you can identify and deal with increased stress levels effectively. 

The three kinds of stress 

1. Positive stress response 

    This kind of stress is actually good for your baby. Their stress response will be elevated momentarily, then return to normal after they realize that they are safe. This might happen when baby: 

    • • Meets a new caregiver - Elevated stress associated with meeting a new person. Goes away when they realize that the new person is safe.
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    • • Gets vaccinated - Short lasting fear associated with the pain that goes away soon after.
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    • • Meets an animal - Similar to meeting a new person. 
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    • • Hears a loud noise - Momentarily startled by the noise but returns to normal after they know they are safe. 

     

    2. Tolerable stress response 

    This kind of stress is usually sparked by more important events. Your baby may be stressed for longer and to a greater extent, but when you come back and comfort them, they should return to normal. This might happen when: 

    • • You leave for a few days on a business trip - Your baby may be distressed when you leave, but another caregiver can attend to their needs. 
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    • • A natural disaster strikes - For example, if your area floods and you have to make frantic adjustments to their daily life.
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    • • Something drastic affects day-to-day life - For example, the onset of COVID-19 has changed the day-to-day routines of many families, which may be stressful for your baby. 

     

    3. Toxic stress response 

      When stress is increased for prolonged periods without caregiver intervention or support, it can actually disrupt brain development and the development of important organs. Usually, this happens when babies experience: 

      • • Chronic neglect - When caregivers are hardly ever attentive to their needs. 
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      • • Physical or emotional abuse 
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      • • Caregivers have substance abuse problems or mental health problems 
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      • • Prolonged effects of economic burden - For example, caregivers are stressed themselves and unable to provide the care and attention needed. 

       

      How can you prevent a toxic stress response? 

      Quite simply put, you have to attend to your baby’s needs, whether it’s physical, emotional, or psychological. These 3 steps will ensure that you are always tuned in. 

      1. Be present 

      It’s hard to know what your baby needs without actually spending time with them and being present. Take the time to learn their unique personalities and behaviors. 

      2. Be responsive 

      Once you learn to identify signs of distress, you can tailor specific responses. For example, if your baby is in need of affection, you can snuggle with them and read a storybook together. 

      3. Be consistent 

      If you’re only present and responsive sometimes, your baby will not feel secure. They don’t know when you will soothe them and when they will be left on their own. Try your best to consistently be attentive to their needs. 

       

      Resources 

      https://developingchild.harvard.edu/guide/a-guide-to-toxic-stress/ 

      https://www.texaschildrens.org/blog/impact-toxic-stress-children

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