Stress Contagion : Study On Effects Of Maternal Stress On Babies

Obviously I do not remember being a baby, and, because of this, I have often been concerned about how my mother’s ever dramatically fluctuating emotional states and bouts of hysteria may have had on my psyvhological development. The study I describe below would seem to justify that concern.

The study to which I refer was conducted by Waters et al., 2014 (at the University of California, San Francisco) suggests that a mother’s stress is contagious when she is interacting with her infant in a way that can affect the baby’s physiological reactivity.

In other words, according to the study, babies can pick up on, and attune to, the mother’s anxious state and, as a result of this, display physical symptoms of stress themselves that mirror her symptoms.

This transmission of the mother’s emotions to her baby is also sometimes referred to as ’emotional synchronicity.’

This reciprocal response can not only adversely affect the baby in the short term, but in the long term, too.


70 mothers were involved in the study together with their one-year-old babies.

The mothers were then split into 3 groups by the researchers :

The preliminary part of the experiment involved the mothers in each of the three groups having to give a 5 minute speech in front of two evaluators and then undertake a 5 minute ‘question and answer’ session.

GROUP ONE : This group was provided with POSITIVE feedback by the evaluators.

GROUP TWO : This group was provided with NEGATIVE feedback by the evaluators.

GROUP THREE : This group were not provided with any feedback by the evaluators.

Results :

After the mothers had given their speeches, undertaken their ‘question and answer’ session and received (or not received, as in the case of GROUP 3) their feedback they were reunited with their babies. At this stage, too, both mothers and their babies had their heart rate monitored.

As predicted, it was found that the mothers in GROUP 2 (who had received the NEGATIVE FEEDBACK) had significantly higher levels of stess (as measured by self report and heart monitor indications) than the mothers in GROUP 1 and GROUP 3.

Also as predicted, it was found that the babies reunited with the GROUP 2 mothers themselves showed higher levels of stress as measured by their heart monitors compared to the babies reunited with mothers from GROUPS 1 and 3. Furthermore, the higher the levels of stress measured in the GROUP 2 mothers, the higher the levels of their babies stress tended to be.

This supports the hypothesis that maternal stress is transmitted to their babies and, as such, can be described as CONTAGIOUS.

Conclusion :

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this study is that if even a mother’s stress that has been generated by a relatively trivial event such as, in this experiment, receiving negative feedbak for a speech, can significantly adversely affect the baby at a physiological level, what effects can much more intense and chronic states of anxiety and stress in the mother have on the baby? Future research should help to answer this question although, clearly, it would be entirely unethical for researchers to experimentally induce such states in mothers making it more difficult to investigate,

Of cousrse, a certain amount of maternal stress is inevitable and normal but it is when maternal stress reaches toxic levels and / or is chronic that it can start to adversely affect the baby’s development, including his or her brain development.



David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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About David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

Psychologist, researcher and educationalist.

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