Shhh…sleeping babies still hear their parents arguing

New research on babies’ brain patterns during sleep adds to the evidence that parents who argue frequently are stressing out their infants. Plenty of research has already indicated that extremely stressful experiences in early life, such as physical abuse or being raised in an institution, affect how the brain processes information. This new study of 20 babies suggests that the more “moderate” stress of having parents who engage in frequent verbal arguments may similarly influence how a baby’s brain develops.

While the babies slept, University of Oregon graduate student Alice Graham used an MRI scanner to gauge their brains’ response to a man’s voice uttering nonsense sentences in various tones. When she and her faculty advisers compared how the babies’ brains processed these different tones, they detected a pattern: when the voice was angry, babies whose parents acknowledged to the researchers that they argued a lot had a greater reaction in areas of the brain that are linked to stress and the regulation of emotion, including the anterior cingulate cortex, caudate, thalamus, and hypothalamus.

Plenty of research has already connected chronic parental strife with negative outcomes for children–including greater levels of anxiety, depression and disruptive behavior. The latest research may suggest mechanisms through which this stress interferes with a child’s developing nervous system.  Graham says it will take long-term studies to determine whether “these patterns of brain activity” are what actually cause negative developmental outcomes in children exposed to frequent conflict. Meanwhile, her study is a reminder that babies are not oblivious “blobs”–even when asleep they hear you.



Should all new mothers be screened for depression? Yes!

Some 22% of new mothers experience postpartum depression. That’s a stunningly high number, large enough that you have to wonder why all women aren’t screened for this problem post-delivery. After all, depression doesn’t “just” devastate the new mother–but puts her newborn at risk for developmental delays and a host of cognitive, emotional and behavioral problems down the road. And then there’s the destructive impact on her other children–and her partner. Right now, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says no to recommending universal screening, claiming there’s not enough evidence to support it. But researchers of a massive, new study on postpartum depression disagree–and they are right. Their work underlines how critical it is to assess all new moms (not just those considered at risk). When they screened 10,000 women who gave birth at a single hospital in Pittsburgh they found that one in seven had depression symptoms 4-6 weeks after the birth. Of these women:

  • 19% were having thoughts of self-harm. In fact, University of Pittsburgh psychiatrist Dorothy Sit told NPR that “some patients with very severe symptoms had made the decision to take their lives.” (They received immediate intervention.) “Most of these women would not have been screened and therefore would not have been identified as seriously at risk,” said the study’s lead researcher, Katherine L. Wisner, MD, now at Northwestern University.
  • Almost two-thirds also suffered from an anxiety disorder.
  • 73% only experienced depression symptoms after becoming pregnant or giving birth.
  • 23% actually had bi-polar disorders (which require different treatment measures than “standard” depression).

“In the U.S., the vast majority of postpartum women with depression are not identified or treated even though they are at higher risk for psychiatric disorders,” said Wisner. “It’s a huge public health problem.”

While experts continue to duke it out, there’s no reason for new mothers to suffer. There are highly effective treatments for depression. The Catch-22 is that depression can blanket a new mother in despair, hopelessness and self-blame that prevent her from seeking help. If you think you or a loved one might fit this description you can access the same simple screening test (called the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale) that the Pittsburgh researchers used. If a new mom scores high, or is otherwise concerned about her mood, she should seek help from a health practitioner. She can also find online support through (which also offers resources for Dads.)

It’s a lie! Sleep advice no new mother should fall for

You’ve heard it plenty of times: the best defense and cure for new-mother exhaustion is to “sleep when your baby is sleeping.” But it doesn’t work!  The sooner you and your partner accept this, the smoother life will go. Some newborns just don’t sleep. Others doze for an hour or so. By the time you’re ready to do the same, the baby is spitting up. You’re lucky if you get in one baby-sized nap a day. More likely you’ll spend baby’s down time doing everything else your continued existence requires, like paying bills and, oh yes, eating. Even if you accept as much help as you can beg or pay for, you will probably still be exhausted. It’s in the best interest of your own sanity and your loving relationship with your partner to accept that the birth of a baby, though joyful, is also a time of crisis. Until your newborn figures out the difference between night and day there won’t be much difference between the two for you either.

Instead of being offered tips that don’t work, new mothers are better off hearing the truth: sometimes there is no solution to parenting problems. Instead, you just have to muddle through until your child out grows them and introduces you to more ghastly or expensive ones. (Here’s something to look forward to: You’ll know you have a teen driver when Christmas brings a “thank you” gift basket from the auto body shop.) Unrealistic expectations about parenting can fuel tension between a couple. If one–or both–of you thinks your child’s problems can be completely solved, you open the door to relentless criticism, frustration and disappointment with each other for falling short.

Tell me I’m wrong! If anyone has a sure-fire solution to new-parent sleep deprivation or any other age-old parenting problem I’d love to hear it.

Signs of OCD common in new moms

It’s one of the most frequent sources of new-parent stress: Mom drives Dad crazy with obsessive worries about diaper changing, bottle sterilizing or whether the baby is still breathing. A new study out of Northwestern University suggests that she can’t help it–her excess vigilance may actually be a form of temporary, childbirth-induced obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The researchers, at the Feinberg School of Medicine, found that 11 percent of the 461 new mothers they assessed in the weeks after childbirth exhibited obsessive-compulsive symptoms, compared with just 2 to 3 percent of the general population.The most common “obsessions” the women reported concerned worries about germs or dirt, or fears that they had “made a mistake” in caring for baby. And the most frequent compulsions included rechecking that the baby monitors were working and repeatedly sterilizing bottles. Some also reported fear that they would harm the baby. Researcher Dana Gossett, MD, numbers herself among women who have experienced that worry. She recalls frequently fretting that her newborn would fall out of bed or that she would topple down the stairs while carrying her baby. “It comes into your mind unbidden and it’s frightening,” she says. In fact, such personal experience with obsessive post-partum thoughts led Gossett and her colleagues to conduct the study. They wondered whether the experience was common among new mothers.

The researchers think hormonal changes may be triggering the worries and compulsive behaviors. In fact, they believe these temporary OCD tendencies could be beneficial. “It may be that certain kinds of obsessions and compulsions are adaptive and appropriate for a new parent, for example those about cleanliness and hygiene,” says Gossett. About half of the mothers reported that their symptoms had diminished by the time the infant was six months old. But mothers who continued to check endlessly that baby was breathing may suffer from an ongoing disorder. “When it interferes with normal day-to-day functioning and appropriate care for the baby and parent, it becomes maladaptive and pathologic,” Gossett says.  The researchers think their study may offer evidence of a distinct post-partum disorder, characterized by OCD symptoms as well as depression (70 percent of the women who screened positive for OCD symptoms also screened positive for depression).

But for many postpartum women who are driving themselves–and their partners’–crazy, it’ should come as a welcome relief to know that their fears and compulsions are a normal reaction to new motherhood–and should pass.

The study will be published The Journal of Reproductive Medicine.

The Sleep-Deprived Marriage

Nothing brings out the fault lines in a relationship like the joy of having a new baby. You’re so exhausted you find yourself shrieking at your beloved for putting the cream cheese on the wrong shelf in the fridge. Meanwhile, your mate is on the verge of a tantrum because the instructions for the “EZ assemble” crib are all in Italian, which is, of course, your fault. You read the baby-book advice on not neglecting your marriage and the supreme importance of Date Night. So there you both are at the Organic Sushi Bistro, equipped with two smart phones, and two smart phone chargers (having asked for a table near an outlet, just in case) so you can team-tag checking on the babysitter. One of you is doing just that, while the others head begins to bob gently over the edamame.

Some 70 percent of couples experience a drop in marital happiness on the arrival of parenthood. The reasons are understandable, mostly to do with very real differences of opinion concerning how the baby should be cared for and by whom. Typically, women complain that their partners aren’t doing enough, while men feel they should be applauded for how much they are doing, especially compared with their own fathers whose only childcare role (if he was even around) was baby’s emcee as in, “Honey, his diaper needs changing!” Guys feel cheated as their alone-time with the new mother gets crowded out by the baby’s endless, desperate needs. And then, of course, there are always the bottomless expenses a baby requires to unnerve both parents more. Meanwhile, your entire value structure–what you think is Important and what you feel “meh” about–shifts dramatically once you have offspring. A lot of these new-parent worries are rooted in serious issues. But they loom extra large when you’re exhausted.. What your marriage needs more than anything right now is probably sleep. A new study out of the University of California at Berkeley underlines this, finding that sleep deficits make couples feel unappreciated by their partner. So yes, get some responsible adult to come over and babysit. But skip Date Night in favor of Sleep Night. Go to bed early. Do this often enough and your partner’s flaws, which now seem so severe and entrenched that they threaten the core of your marriage, can once again become tolerable, adorable foibles. Until PMS returns.

How do “difficult” babies fare?

So what happens to those “difficult” babies–the ones whose sensitive nervous systems make them high-energy, super-focused, sleepless and irritable compared with other infants? A new study suggests that these babies may be facing a “high risk, high reward” future-they either end up doing great or struggling with emotional and behavioral problems. The deciding factor is how they’re parented.

It’s nice that psychologists no longer debate whether, when it comes to temperament, we are born that way (we are). But temperament isn’t destiny. Researchers from Brown University and the University of Oregon assessed the nervous systems of 73, 7-month-old babies from extremely low-income families. To gauge each baby’s temperament, the researchers measured the infants’ heart rates while they breathed in and then out. On one end of the sensitivity scale were babies who were very alert and focused on their environment and also irritable and fussy in the face of change. At the other end were calm babies who were less focused on their environment and also less disturbed by disruptions. A year later the researchers re-evaluated the now toddlers, assessing them for anxiety and aggression. All of these babies were considered at risk for problem behaviors, due to their environment. But some proved more resilient than others. The sensitive babies either had the least anxiety and aggression, or the most. (The results for the calmer kids were sandwiched in between.) The determining factor in how these sensitive kids fared was the quality of their connection with their mother, which the researchers assessed through a very common psychological experiment called the “strange situation.” First, the mom and toddler were put in a room the child had never seen before. After they settled in, Mom briefly left. In most cases, the sensitive tots started to cry. Then the researchers observed how quickly the children calmed down once Mom returned. If Mom’s reappearance relaxed the toddler, that indicated a positive mother-child attachment that helped the child to feel safe in the face of a troubling environment. But if a tot only calmed down after a long while, or not at all, this indicated that interactions with Mom weren’t helping this child cope.

Turns out the sensitive babies who had a strong attachment to their mother had the lowest levels of aggression and anxiety compared with all the babies. “Those were the kids that were doing the best — the absolute best — of all of the kids in our sample, and they had far and away the lowest reported problem behaviors,” said researcher Jeffrey Measelle in an interview with National Public Radio. The outcomes for the calmer kids were not as extreme, no matter how they were parented. In fact, Measelle says the sensitive kids who had secure attachments “were looking a lot better behaviorally than a lot of babies growing up in middle class and advantaged samples.”

What does it mean? Well, the study affirms that for kids living in poverty, the quality of parenting is a significant factor in whether they will thrive despite their troubled environment. And, it underlines that it’s every child’s birthright to be loved and to feel safe and wanted (no matter how much they cry or keep their parents up at night!).

Why Babies Cry–it’s all in their eyes

If you’ve ever debated with your partner (or yourself) over just why your baby is crying–wet diaper? gas? just bored to tears? Spanish researchers have an answer for you: If your baby’s eyes are open, then fear or anger is the probable reason for the tears. But if his or her eyes are mostly closed, physical pain is the culprit. Another clue: when baby is in pain the crying ratchets up to a high volume very quickly and stays there, while fear and anger tend to produce initially quieter wails that grow over time. Or at least those were the patterns in the 20 infants between 3 months and 18 months old studied by a team headed by Mariano Chóliz at the University of Valencia. (I’m certainly hoping the researchers themselves didn’t cause the “stimuli” that provoked the babies!) Of course, since babies are creatures of mystery who prefer to follow their own rules than those of their parents’ or psychologists from the Departamento de Psicologia Basica, don’t be surprised if the crib in your home holds a baby who screams at full volume with eyes wide open, or whimpers with eyes clamped shut. But take comfort. If you and your partner have a tough time figuring out why your infant is crying, you have plenty of company. The researchers found that adult observers of the babies they studied tended to be clueless about what was triggering the tears.

Don’t Just SAY No

Babies are sponges for language. By the time they are seven months old, way before they can speak, they can understand simple words–including “No!” But just because baby “understands” those two simple letters doesn’t mean issuing them is enough to keep your child and your home safe once he or she becomes mobile. It is so tempting to “just say no” from the relative comfort of your armchair when baby is on the rampage. Unfortunately, only by getting up and physically repositioning her can you guarantee she doesn’t pull down the drapes or yank out the cable wire or sample the potting soil. Of course, the more babyproofing you do, the fewer dangers baby will face. But there will still be some. Just accept that “No!” alone is not going to keep your baby (or your walls) safe from the Sharpie somebody left out on the kitchen counter. It isn’t going to rescue the alphabet book before another page gets torn or chewed. And then there’s the cat’s food…. An active, inquisitive baby can easily turn you into a “NO!” chorus. This is not just ineffective, it’s also bad for your relationship. Constant reprimands put everybody in a bad mood. So try to remember that saying “no!” or proclaiming “bad!” isn’t going to change a baby’s behavior. He just isn’t going to get it until he’s a toddler. A child is never too young to be spoken to. So even with a ten month old, it’s a good idea to say, “no! Hot!” if little fingers are reaching for your coffee. But until your child is old enough to process verbal commands never just say “No!” You also have to move the mug—or your baby.

Harness the Power of Distraction

What do you do when your baby stiffens like a board when you need to put him in the stroller? Or screams and writhes in his high chair because that bright shiny toy, otherwise known as the meat cleaver, is maddeningly out of reach? Of all the wondrous qualities possessed by the typical infant, there are times when the one you’ll be most grateful for is his spotty short-term memory. By honing the fine art of distraction there will be many occasions when you’ll be able to spare his tears- and your ears. Try the following techniques. The more of them you use at the same time, the higher your success rate is likely to be.

  •  Turn on some music. Few kids can resist it. Get him clapping his hands and “singing” along. Meanwhile, the cleaver disappears into a drawer or his bottom gets gently settled into the stroller.
  • Feed him. You don’t want to play this hand too often, but on a good day you can short- circuit a major meltdown with the kindly offer of a rice cake.
  • Relocate him. Once your baby is taken out of his high chair and placed on his bedroom floor with his Pooh bear and bunny blocks, the cleaver quickly fades from memory.
  • Act excited. Smile, open your eyes wide, point and say, “Oh! Look! A … a … Birdie! Ooooo! See the birdie?” While he’s searching the sky you guide him into the stroller. Keep up the patter: “Oh, such a nice birdie! Tweet tweet it says,” while you strap him in.
  • Wait two minutes. Instead of wrestling over a diaper change, let her spend some time looking at a book or a rattle, or singing a song. Give it about 120 seconds and most likely she’ll forget that she’s in the middle of a diaper strike. Then, without announcing it, simply get to work on her bottom.

These techniques are not foolproof. If they work this time, they won’t necessarily work the next. And eventually, as your children grow, you will be astounded by their memory. Instead of distracting them you will have to move on to the more complex arts of parental control, namely: bribery, blackmail and when all else fails, “because I said so.”

Be Consistent

Childcare manuals like the “What to Expect” books are such “must haves” because few of us want to begin the journey to parenthood without a clue about what to anticipate or how to cope. Unfortunately, there’s no primer available for the person who is truly clueless about what to expect: the baby. The only way he or she learns about the world is by understanding what to expect from you. If you pick him up every time he cries, he’ll come to count on comfort. Feed her quickly when she’s hungry and she’ll assume that she will always be nourished. By creating a warm nest of consistent care, you ease your baby’s transition from womb to world. And you create a foundation on which she can build an understanding of what it means to be in this strange new place.

Having their expectations met allows babies to make assumptions about the world that help them learn. Like little scientists, babies make hypotheses that they then test (Will Mommy make that funny face if I drop my bottle again? Will she pick me up if I cry?). If the baby is always left guessing, his confidence that he can ever begin to understand his environment is going to be pretty low. Of course, babies vary greatly in how much they crave routine-some are more rigid, others more flexible. Being consistent doesn’t mean you have to set his feeding and sleeping on a strict schedule. What is probably most important is that you try to be consistent when it comes to your emotional responses. Studies show that babies whose needs are responded to on a consistent basis have what experts call a secure attachment to their mother or whoever is taking care of them most of the time. This means they feel connected and safe, which is supposed to be a harbinger of growing up to be a relatively happy, well-adjusted person. Those whose needs aren’t met tend to be poorly attached, which some experts believe makes it a struggle for them to make connections with other people as they grow up. Those whose needs are met inconsistently tend to be insecurely attached-which means, basically, that they feel insecure. And since the world offers most of us plenty of unmeetable challenges, bad luck and broken pretzels, it helps to let your baby start out with some confidence that he can handle what life dishes out.