IMPACT OF STRESS ON NEWBORNS:
Nothing breaks a parent’s heart more than seeing her child suffer from depression or live
isolated because of anxiety or develop debilitating diabetes or worse die a sudden death from a
heart attack. However the origins of all these problems of ageing stem - in large part - from
the way parents handle their newborn children. Most of this book is dedicated to laying out the
parameters for proper handling of sensitive children. However, let us begin with some of the
consequences of mishandling a newborn baby.
IMMEDIATE CONSEQUENCES OF STRESS:
It is true that minimal, short-lived, pleasant stress otherwise known as stimulation can help
children refine their personality since birth. However, unpleasant or longer-lived stress may
have adverse consequences at any age. Most of the immediate consequences of stress are
adaptive in the sense that these changes are geared towards ensuring the person’s survival.
However, not all the measures of the stress response are fit for today’s civilization concept of
survival, especially for autistic children.
Classic animal studies [by Michael Meaney group in McGill university and others] show that
rat puppies that are heavily licked and groomed by their mothers grow up to have a better
ability to handle stress than puppies who are only sparingly groomed. In addition, puppies that
are mildly stimulated [as in taken away from the mother for 15 minutes daily] also grow up to
be better prepared at handling stress later in life. Animal studies also show a generational link.
Puppies who well groomed as youngsters grow up to groom their own puppies well. Puppies
that are neglected or abandoned as youngsters grow up to repeat similar behaviors as adults
and their offspring typically have even greater difficulties handling stress.
It is without a question that this process is many folds more complicated in human babies. Let
us begin by examining the immediate consequences of stress on babies.
A very common example of that is someone who is visibly startled every time a car back fires
and every time someone throws a fire cracker or even every time someone enters the room
unannounced. Most insensitive babies may not notice when these things happen or will take
them as an exciting, thrilling thing to watch and interact with. A sensitive baby, on the other
hand, will react immediately to such a sudden change in environment. A sensitive baby faced
with a change in her environment will act alarmed, anxious and will direct all her senses in full
attention to examine that and any other possible change. A sensitive baby will consider such a
change as a threat to her existence and will become on alert for any unfamiliar movement,
noise, flash or disturbance.
Distributed focus is an immediate consequence of unexpected change in environment. This is
the opposite of narrow constricted focus (hyperfocus) which usually ensues with longer
standing or more severe stress. During stress, one of the adaptive aspects of vigilance is that
sensitive babies tend to focus on the whole environment and surroundings. They tend to
distribute our attention equally to anything that moves or hums or glitters… part of vigilance is
expecting danger to be coming from any direction or source. While this is protective if one is
in the jungle at night hiding from a tiger, it may not be the same in today’s world. The
indiscriminate focus is a manifestation of the non-screening quality of sensitive babies
preventing them from focusing for example on the one person who just entered the bedroom.
This usually leads to awkward interaction with this person. The baby looks frazzled, subdued,
inattentive and unwelcoming.
There is usually either no discernable facial expression or a sad frowning disposition.
Distributed focus makes it very difficult for the baby to make a connection. It also slowly
turns people off, including sometimes the parents, from interacting since the baby’s response
does not reinforce opposing party’s behavior. It is during these first six months of life that
sensitive babies begin to miss out on learning facial features and body language of others.
Learning while alarmed:
During stress, as attention has to be distributed to all the surroundings, focused attention on a
specific task such as learning becomes very difficult to accomplish. A stressed baby cannot
pay sufficient attention on one source of stimulation to learn a movement or a gesture or the
means to handle a toy. This process of indiscriminate focus occupies the working memory of
the baby and prevents her from retaining cues presented to her by others. For example, every
time a chair moves, she has to bounce a moving chair against the concept (symbol) of chair in
her mind in order to determine that the chair is neutral and not dangerous. This constant need
to rule out multiple sources of danger tends to consume the working memory and deprives the
stressed kid from the opportunity to listen to or watch what others are doing. The presented
material is deprioritized automatically since it is not essential for survival at a threatening time.
Constructive learning requires either pleasant stimulation from a familiar, consistent face or
higher level of stress sufficient to recruit more mental capacity and promote a shift to narrow
focus. Remember the pattern of response to stress under the behavioral curve ball tradition.
During stress, while constructive learning of non-survival matters is suppressed, fear learning
is enhanced. Fear learning is essential for survival since it is meant to keep us away from the
lion’s den – literally - or from where the mammoth elephants hung out. However in today’s
world where, stress often comes from an unruly sibling or grandma entering the baby’s
bedroom, there is no point in facilitating a fear path that leads the stressed kid to avoid the
source of “danger”. Yet, it happens so often, and sensitive kids end up narrowing their circle
of interaction as a result of repetitive stress coming from even the closest people in their life.
These fear pathways are easily reinforced with every stressful episode and the part of our
brain inherited from reptiles favors their learning. Neither kids nor adults going through these
processes can will themselves naturally to prevent them. These are very old, very well
entrenched processes rooted in our instincts. Fear learning may result in an expanding
preference for avoidance over social engagement.
Inhibition of growth:
During stress, the metabolic priorities are inverted. While during quiescent times, one may
engage in pleasurable and leisurely activities, during stress, the only purpose is survival. This
means that the focus of the body during stress is solely on keeping the heart beating and the
brain working, among few other essential functions. The focus is lifted away from building
muscle or brain tissue or bone or any other activity aimed at furthering the baby’s growth and
development but is not immediately essential for survival. Growth, whether physical or
intellectual, is stifled until the threat is resolved. Some of that results from the stress hormones
inhibiting or antagonizing growth hormone, insulin, melatonin and other leisurely hormones.
We will come back to these hormones and many more later.
Most people can relate to the fact that after a fender bender, it might take some time before
one can engage in eating or other self-fulfilling activities. The same applies to children in
distress too, especially the sensitive ones.
Increased cardiovascular tone:
The increase in heart rate, blood pressure and tone of the blood vessels is part of the
preparations for the fight or flight reaction during stress. This may also be associated with
emptying of the bladder and defecation to get rid of the extra weight. This may explain, at least
in part, the reason why many sensitive kids have toilet training problems or may regress after
successful toilet training. These are all adaptive changes in the forest where we need to run or
wrestle a fox, but are practically useless when the source of stress is noise coming from the
next room where a sibling is training on a guitar. Besides, these changes in the heart and blood
pressure may have long-term health consequences.
Some lasting and often permanent effects of adverse early life events [immediate stress] on a
newborn’s stress response later in life:
|IMPACT OF EARLY LIFE STRESS ON
AUTISTIC / ASPERGER'S
|1- Increase hypothalamic CRH and other
|Increase stress reactivity & anxiety
|2- Increase amygdala CRH production
||Increase stress reactivity & fear learning
|3- Decrease cortisol receptors in hippocampus
|Increase difficulty terminating stress response
|4- Decrease GABAA receptors in hippocampus
||Increase difficulty terminating the stress
|5- Increase brain noradrenalin activity
||Increase reactivity to stress & irritability
|6- Increase serotonin availability & utilization
||Difficulty gaining dominance over personal life
|All these effects cumulatively result in limiting the baby’s potential later in life; often these effects
result in a life marred by desperation, perpetual failure and loss of self-esteem.
This table was compiled from many sources, some of which appear in the references section at
the end of this chapter.
CRH: corticotropin releasing hormone
GABAA: gamma aminobenzoic acid receptor type A
These are some of the major effects of early life stress with a significant impact on how
stress is handled later in life. There is plenty of evidence from both animal and human studies
illustrating that higher magnitude of stress exposure early in life increases the vulnerability to
stress later. This comes in the form of excessive and more prolonged responses to stress. In
fact the exaggerated stress response may translate into a limited potential at large in one’s life
due to increased likelihood of depression. Moreover, these disadvantages are carried to and
built upon with future generations.
LONG TERM CONSEQUENCES OF STRESS:
Prolonged activation of the stress system or frequent activation thereof, usually leads to our
adaptive mechanisms turning on us and pushing us toward chronic illness and debilitating
diseases later in life. Prolonged increase in heart rate and blood pressure, eventually can lead to
hypertension, and atherosclerosis (narrowing of blood vessels). Increased blood viscosity
during stress may contribute to strokes and heart attacks and deep vein thrombosis. The
increased viscosity is originally designed to limit bleeding in the case of injury.
Still, later in life many more problems are associated with continuous or repetitive stress
including weight gain, loss of stamina, insulin resistance, diabetes, depression, anxiety, cancer,
increased cholesterol and LDL cholesterol… you get the picture. Who is at the most
disadvantage in developing all these consequences? It is the person who responds more
vigorously to stress and the person who undergoes too much stress. Many times both
conditions are fulfilled in the sensitive person. There is only limited room in this book for more
in-depth explanation of how the diseases of ageing can be a consequence of long standing
stress since conception.
|SUMMARY OF THE MAJOR METABOLIC EFFECTS OF STRESS-INDUCED INCREASES IN
ADRENALIN & CORTISOL:
|Target tissue or
||Increased glucose synthesis
||Increase blood sugar levels
||Decrease HDL production
||Increase cholesterol in blood
|Muscle and fat
||Glycogen & protein breakdown
to form glucose
|Increase blood sugar levels
|Muscle and fat
||Fat breakdown and
mobilization to blood
|Enhanced reliance on fatty
acids for fuel – facilitator of
obesity & ageing
|Muscle and fat
||Decrease sensitivity to insulin
|Facilitate insulin resistance – a
precursor to diabetes
|Heart and blood vessels
||Increase heart rate and blood
|Increase blood pressure, blood
vessel wall thickening and risk
of blood clots
||Decrease GH release*, tissue
sensitivity to GH, IGF1 and
|Delay in growth and
development in children; bony
frame; reduced tissue
||Inhibition of reproductive
hormones including LH,
progesterone & testosterone;
render target tissues resistant
|Sexual maturity problems at
puberty, cycle irregularities,
reduced fertility, hot flashes,
||Decrease triiodothyronine, the
active thyroid hormone;
Inhibition of TSH, short-term
|Delay in growth and
development in children;
decrease metabolic rate
||Reduced new bone formation
||Osteopenia & osteoporosis –
both genders equally
||Inhibit stomach acid; reduce
movement of food along;
|Bloating, food fermentation,
loose stools, constipation,
irritable bowel, pain,
||weaken gut immune defenses;
increase permeability (leaky
gut); weaken friendly bacteria
|free access of ingested toxins
and food additives to rest of
body; succumbing to microbes
including yeast and parasites.
||Further sensitizes stress
|Increase likelihood of anxiety
and depression for the rest of
|HDL: high density lipoprotein; GH: growth hormone; IGF1 & 2: insulin like growth factors
working to implement some of the functions of GH; TSH: thyroid stimulating hormone; LH:
* Inhibition of GH release is applicable to longer-standing stress after an initial short phase of
TABLE: COURTESY MEANEY, MICHAEL J. et al. ANNALS OF THE NEW YORK ACADEMY OF
SCIENCES 1999; 896: 66-84 [EXPANDED & MODIFIED]