Stress Cues: What are they? Why should I learn them?

Did you know that there are other ways that babies can communicate stress silently, especially in the newborn period?

Most times, you know your baby is stressed by listening to their cry, looking at their face, or hearing their grunts. In the first few months of life, babies also have “silent stress cues”.

DON’T PANIC- these silent stress cues are NORMAL. I repeat. NORMAL

So to start lets go over what a baby looks like that is calm and ready to interact with you.

  • Relaxed posture

  • Sucking calming on a pacifier

  • Looking at you

  • Bringing their hands to their face or mouth

  • Tucking/flexing their legs

  • Opening/closing of palms

Pretty normal right? When your baby is calm, it allows them to interact with their environment in a healthy way. They can receive the sensory experiences around them to the fullest, and benefit from the experiences to build on for future experiences.

What does it look like when my baby is stressed/overwhelmed and not crying?

  • Frowning

  • Looking away

  • Sneezing

  • Squirming

  • Arching

  • Flailing arms and legs

  • Tension in the body

  • Arm or leg extension

  • Skin color changes

In theory, its pretty straightforward right? Well sometimes, it might be a subtle sneeze, or a quick look away, or even some little arching you might think was related to reflux. Again, this is not to make you worry as a caregiver, but teach you to be more in tune with your baby! Picking up on these “silent stress cues” can help you to regulate the amount of stimulation your baby gets. The development of an infants sensory system is so critical. They cannot regulate input on their own or say STOP out-loud (unless they are crying and its obvious).


My Favorite Example

I see this pretty often with newborns. Especially pre-term infants, but it can be present the first few weeks to months of life. Follow me along with this scenario: You bring your newborn baby home, and its just been time with you and your loved one, as well as maybe a excited older sibling. Your baby is adjusting well to the environment and stimuli and you think, “I don’t see these stress cues at all”. The next day, in comes Auntie Helen. Auntie Helen is SO estactic to see the baby. She comes in with tons of presents, drops them on the floor, squeals, takes the baby and puts he or she up to her face and starts talking, rocking, and cooing in the babies face.

How does your baby react? Is the baby social, making good eye contact, relaxed posture and movement? Even if they initially show that, are they still like that after a minute or two? Or are they showing some of the stress cues I listed earlier? Most of the time, if you look closely, the baby may not be making eye contact, or turning their head away because Auntie Helen’s face is overstimulating. Or, the sound is too loud they are closing their eyes and turning away from the noise and begin fussing.

Again, may I stress that this is normal, but you can utilize this information to help provide positive interactions with your baby and support them with new experiences. Just because Auntie Helen is overstimulating (you know you all have one, or are one and that is okay!) you can help support your baby by grading the amount of input your baby gets. Maybe holding your baby first while Auntie Helen says hello. Or having Auntie Helen hold her without talking and make cute smiling faces and soothing sounds before getting super excited.

Grading the sensory experiences can be super helpful!



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