Stress Signs in Infants

(Note- This is from a pediatric physical therapy viewpoint today).

A brilliant comment from anthromama on my last post regarding “40 Days After Birth and Beyond” stimulated a small idea in my head!  Many of you know that I am a neonatal physical therapist by profession and in my work, recognizing and calming an infant in stress is a huge part of what I do.  So, with that in mind, I thought I would list the stress signs of an infant here for everyone to see because it never occurred to me that folks might not recognize stress signs in their own full-term infants (yes, a full-term infant can still have stress signs – remember, protect those 12 senses!)

Stress signs:

The baby will salute you – essentially this looks like a baby stretching out their hand toward you, (usually the back of the hand toward you) and up towards their face.  Parents will say, “How cute! He is waving at me!”  Nope, nope and nope.

The baby will extend the arm and splay the fingers apart.

The baby will frown, grimace, grunt.

The baby will all of the sudden start yawning, hiccupping, or sneezing multiple times.  (Yes, babies do yawn, hiccup, or sneeze but this is more like 10 times in a row or more all of the sudden).

The baby will arch the back and neck and push away (and yes, some babies with gastroesophageal reflux disease will also arch and push away).

The baby will look away suddenly and for a long period after having a period of wonderful eye contact on a caregiver’s face – think about this one carefully.  We ourselves do not maintain focused eye contact on others when we are in conversation, but often our eyes are scanning and resting, scanning and resting.   The looking away is a sign the baby needs a break and less focus.

The baby will cry.  This is usually a last sign when all other signs have been ignored.

The baby will become frantic and move all extremities wildly.

Or, conversely, the baby will just shut down, shut his or eyes and tune everything out.

What To Do:

Breastfeed and gently but firmly snuggle your infant

Try tucking your infant’s arms and legs close into their body.  See if you can help your infant clasp their hands together or to bring their hand to their mouth if they are not nursing.

Try talking to your infant before touching them – let them know you are there!

Hold your baby about 10 inches or so from your face – the distance they see best at first if  you are wanting to make direct eye contact.  Vision is not the most utilized sense in a newborn!

Turn down the lights; bright lights bother many infants

Swaddling!

Most importantly, decrease the multiple inputs going on – if the other kids are screaming, the dog is barking, the phone is ringing – well, see if you can turn the phone off, calm the kids, let the dog go outside.

Let the baby hold your finger.

For “All-Out Crying”

Sometimes babies just need a release and that is okay while being held and soothed, but we really want the infant to establish trust in that a caregiver will meet their needs (in other words, no crying it out for a small baby!)   If nursing is not doing the trick, some babies enjoy being swaddled and held upright with motion such as  being walked around.  Some babies I have loved who had more severe neurologic challenges have responded best to being rather tightly swaddled, sucking on my gloved finger in a sidelying position with their head higher than their stomach and being “gently  rhythmically bounced” (ie, if they are on your leg, cross one leg over the other leg, put the infant on their side on the leg that is highest with their head away from you and tap your bottom leg to a  slow rhythmic beat).  I need to take a picture so you all can see it better.  Sometimes sucking along with a gentle rhythmical bouncing or rocking is very helpful for any infant in distress.

Babies that are happy:

Are in a quiet and alert state.

The face, arms and legs are relaxed.

The baby can focus on objects or people.

Their eyes are open and they try to smile.

There was a post I wrote quite awhile ago regarding why babies cry, typical crying patterns, etc:  http://theparentingpassageway.com/2009/01/19/when-babies-cry-and-what-we-can-all-learn-from-the-high-needs-baby-and-child/

Hope this helps stimulate some thought,

Carrie

3 thoughts on “Stress Signs in Infants

  1. It’s hard sometimes to read infants: grimaces could be from gas, tuning out could be simply falling asleep, arching the back could be GERD, etc. But then sometimes it seems obvious — I remember my son flailing his arms wildly if he felt somehow unsafe, like being lowered backwards into a bath.

    I loved swaddling my son when he was an infant — he seemed to like it, and as a c-section baby I think he needed it.

    (Thanks for the compliment!)

  2. I think you should lead a Waldorf ante-natal class Carrie … (as if you didn’t have enough to do right!!!) where expecting mothers are encouraged to orient themselves to homelife, inner work and understand the true needs of infants!

  3. Acid reflux is actually a process which a lot of people will sense somewhat regularly. The difference betwixt every day acid reflux, and that of GERD patients is the acidity of the reflux as well as the length for which it persists in the oesophagus.

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