Calm, cortisol -inducing and the stages in between: Understanding our baby’s stress responses
We all know (and have felt) that instant reaction when we hear our baby or child cry – there’s not much that tugs on the heartstrings more quickly.
You may also have come across the idea that your baby has different cries that mean different things.
However, whether you can tell your baby’s hungry cry from their tired cry, the fact remains that crying is a baby’s way of communicating.
Despite the pull on our heartstrings, our baby’s cries are not created equal – by which I mean, their cries are not always communicating despair. Nor do they always result in the release of cortisol, or signal the same level of stress reaction.
A look at stress responses
According to the science, stress responses fall into one of the following three categories:
- Positive: classified as brief and mild – to moderate. This could be things like vaccinations, starting school or daycare or possibly sleep training. It tends to be the upset that your child experiences around transitions but is experienced with the countering effects of a parent there to buffer it. Positive stress responses provide our children with the opportunity to observe, learn, and practice adaptive responses to an adverse situation.
- Tolerable: is still relatively short-term and might be the result of a natural disaster, a death in the family, or divorce. There’s no denying these situations cause stress, but a loving adult is present to buffer it and can help a child to learn to deal with the stress – in which case it can, ultimately, become a positive stress response.
- Toxic: is the type you really want to avoid. This is the result of child abuse, neglect, long-term maternal depression, or substance abuse by a parent. When this form of stress is chronic or long-term, it can damage a child’s brain development.
What I find interesting when researching stress responses, is that even a tolerable stress such as divorce or death can become a positive stress response when buffered by the love and responsiveness of a parent or caregiver.
Further to this point is that while child abuse is horrific and appalling, and in no way justifiable, science tells us it has to be chronic and long term to damage brain development.
Is it fair to then insinuate that a few nights of sleep training buffered by a loving adult, is in fact worse than prolonged physical and mental child abuse?
Cortisol’s the culprit
For our babies, and ourselves, the body’s reaction to stress is similar – it releases cortisol and adrenaline.
To some extent, these hormones serve a biological purpose, mobilising our energy while suppressing our immune system and all the other so-called ‘non-essential’ processes that our body doesn’t specifically need to get out of a stressful situation.
We all understand what adrenaline is about. However, cortisol has received a bit of a bad rap recently.
Cortisol can be measured in the saliva, since it is easily measurable it is often tied to explanations of the damage that toxic chronic stress can have on a child’s brain.
While cortisol does factor into it, not all heightened cortisol readings are problematic.
Cortisol levels rise and fall naturally over the course of the day – increasing by 300-400% in a pattern that is still entirely normal. It’s when we see cortisol levels a third again outside of this normal pattern that we can say that there is a stress response, and even then this stress response need to be both toxic (see above) and long term, to cause harm.
Crying without cortisol
While there’s no arguing that chronic cortisol elevation can be damaging, as I mentioned earlier, not all crying triggers the release of cortisol. In fact one interesting child development study measured cortisol levels of infants having their 2, 4, 6 and 15 month immunisations.
Although the babies cried loudly at each of their visits, after the first time, there was no longer a biological stress response; they knew what was coming and had learnt to cope. This is a positive stress response, the body isn't shutting down, it has learnt to cope.
This isn't neglect, its growth and development of a stress response.
In other words, they still got a bit of a fright, but they were alright.
Other studies have also found that crying may release tension and reduce the activity of the HPA axis and cortisol response. All of this is further evidence that not all forms of stress – and not all crying – is the same.
So what does this have to do with my baby’s sleep?
Firstly, cortisol comes into things because babies who sleep more have lower basal cortisol, meaning their brains are primed for the ultimate in healthy development. There’s no denying that the road to getting your baby to sleep well can seem stressful.
And it can be stressful, but the benefits are substantial.
Recognising that the current sleep situation in your household is not working, and making changes to improve it, can actually reduce a child’s long-term exposure to stress and cortisol; not to mention the numerous benefits that come from the whole family getting more good quality sleep.
Working with a trained sleep consultant ensures that the stress around changes to a child’s sleep routine are managed and minimised. The resulting stress is always buffered by a parent, either through the use of consistent ‘in room’ methods or frequent check ins as a child learns to settle, both of which we know lessen the biological stress response.
Our understanding of cortisol also points to the importance of consistency for lowering stress and making sure that it is only experienced in a very short-term way. Some of our clients have tried and failed with sleep training for several weeks, and with our guidance and experience we are able to solve their sleep drama in a few nights.
In the same way that we saw crying without cortisol in the latter experiences of a child’s vaccinations, there may still be tears on the subsequent night's of sleep training, but much less stress, if a child understands what’s happening.
While most mothers have an emotional response to hearing their baby cry, it can help to understand that some stress, when short-term, can actually result in a positive stress response.
Ultimately, our job as parents is not to always problem-solve or distract at sleep time. It’s not to remove their emotions and quieten them constantly with a breast or dummy.
It’s not even to stop the crying or force them to sleep.
Our vital role is to provide them with all the very best conditions they need to thrive and with opportunities to observe, learn and practice adaptive responses, to all situations, including stress and sleep.
In most families, sleep training with a sleep consultant is brief and successful, the results are a baby who has a new and important skill: the ability to sleep and settle independently.
Emma is the owner and founder of Baby Sleep Consultant, she is a certified infant and child sleep consultant, Happiest Baby on the block educator, has a Bachelor of Science, and Diploma in Education. Emma is a mother to 3 children, and loves writing when she isn't working with tired clients and cheering on her team helping thousands of mums just like you.
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My baby has reflux can you help?
When your baby has reflux, feeds can be difficult and your baby can be in a lot of pain both during and after feeds. This pain can cause feeding aversions and failure to thrive. This is why true GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease) needs to be treated by a doctor. Once your baby's doctor is satisfied your baby is feeding well, and you have the right medication or formula then we can start a sleep plan and you will be successful.
My baby has colic will this help?
Colic is defined as 3 or more hours of crying per day in infants. Crying subsides in the second second trimester. If you are still experiencing colic symptoms speak to your baby's doctor about whether this could be reflux, an allergy, or over tiredness. We can help you work on better sleep with this program at the same time as your doctor investigates the pain and crying.
What if the program isn't working?
We have a dedicated help line to ensure your success. Just email our team via the details in your program and a certified, experienced and friendly sleep consultant is ready to stare you in the right direction to ensure your success!
My baby was born early, can you help?
Sleep is neurological so we always work off your babies neurological age, that is their corrected age. When you look at our sleep programs purchase the program that your babies corrected age fits into.
What if I have questions or need more help?
Our sleep programs come with private email support. You don’t have to post in any public forums or groups, just email the exclusive helpline that our team of certified sleep consultants look after and we’ll answer all your questions and help you on your way.
Can this program help with my babies night sleep?
Yes, all our online sleep programs contain night sleep plans. We will teach you how to move from multiple night feeds to 2 or 1 or none (depending on what is age appropriate and appropriate for your baby.) Don’t worry we will show you to figure this out too. If your baby is unsettled at night but not feeding, our plans will help you with consolidate night sleep and self settling when age appropriate.
My baby is cat napping can you help?
Cat napping is a very normal physiological stage that your baby goes through. At this stage (3-8 months old), cat napping can start to be a long term issue and compound into over tiredness and affect night sleep and your babies happiness. Good news, this is a great age to work on re-settling, self settling and better longer naps!
I have 3 children, can this work with my family?
I totally understand how busy life is with 2, 3 or more children! Even if you need a flexible schedule we can still work on settling regular naps (some on the go!), and better evenings and night. Flick our consultants any specific questions about your family's schedule of activities and we can help you work out what is possible nap wise.
I don't want a fixed routine, can you still help?
Yes. A fixed routine is one option, regular naps and regular awake times is another. Both are valid and you are welcome to do what works for your family. We understand you are all different and what works best for one family won't be best for another.
I'm formula feeding, can you still help?
Yes we have specific advice for formula feeding parents, and we support your decision to feed any way you choose. We even have a special video series on formula feeding and everything you need to know. Just ask our consultants about this extra if you need it.
I'm exclusively breastfeeding, can I follow your plans?
Yes! While breastfeeding babies need to feed frequently they still need quality sleep day and night. We have specific advice for breastfeeding mums and an exclusive discount on Julia Daleys breastfeeding course if you need extra help.
I'm bed sharing, can your program help me stop?
Yes. We often fall into bed sharing, we call this reactive bed sharing. Or we have simply changed our mind, and moving on from bed sharing we need some support. Our programs and consults will guide you through gentle sleep methods, which are more appropriate for most bed sharing babies who are moving towards independent sleep in the cot.
I'm feeding to sleep, can you help me stop?
Yes. Feeding to sleep is a common sleep association and one that works well for lots of newborns. Often we need to move on from feeding to sleep when it starts to cause short naps, or prolonged settling or frequent night wake ups as baby looks for their association to go back to sleep over and over again at night. We can teach you how to teach your baby to self settle and move on from feeding to sleep when the time is right.
I'm rocking to sleep, is their a solution?
Yes. These are common sleep associations, we refer to this as assisting to sleep. Let us show you ways you can develop independent sleep and settling strategies with our online sleep program, or one on one consult.
Is this program based on Cry It Out?
No. Cry it out is the common name for a sleep training method where you put baby down and don’t respond or check until they are fast asleep. There is no CIO involved in this program as we feel this should be only done under proper supervision. Instead we have included all our very gentle approaches and more mainstream techniques for you to choose from.
Is this based on Science or Art?
Both! As a scientist I (Emma) have spent over 8 years researching the science of sleep. I have educated and certified over 500 consultants around the world as sleep consultants, and have worked with thousands of clients. I love the scientific explanations of why we see the sleep patterns we see, and this science helps us to shape plans and solutions that we know will work. But there's an element of art to getting a baby to sleep, understanding the right combination of things that will work best, and this is where your instinct comes in.
All of the below, refer to scientific journals and studies, or the American Academy of Pediatics (AAP). In some cases you may not be able to read complete articles due to needing to purchase the paper. None of the below links are self published blogs or opinion pieces.
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