Infants are surprisingly tuned in to their environment

During their first months of life, babies may seem to be exclusively focused on eating, sleeping, crying, cooing, and passing various forms of waste products. But there is increasing evidence from ingeniously designed studies that babies are much more tuned in to the nuances of their environment than many adults think.

An intriguing article in the May 2013 issue of Psychological Science adds to the accumulating literature on this issue. Researchers at the University of Oregon looked at 20 infants from 6 to 12 months of age. They asked the mothers how much inter-parental stress and conflict existed in the home and ranked the infants according to the level of non-physical stress they experienced in their environment. The authors then performed functional MRIs on the infants during sleep, while the infants were listening to pre-recorded voices which sounded either very angry, somewhat angry, neutral, or happy. They found that infants raised in more stressful environments demonstrated higher levels of brain activation when exposed to angry voices than those infants raised in less stressful environments.

So, what are the implications of this study? As the authors put it in their abstract, “The primary question was whether interparental conflict experienced by infants is associated with neural responses to emotional tone of voice, particularly very angry speech.” Though the number of participants was small, the results certainly lend credence to the hypothesis that environmental stress influences infants’ brain activity.

What should physicians and other clinicians do with this information? It may be helpful to educate our patients who are parents about studies like this, to help them appreciate that heated arguments in the home may impact their baby. It does appear that babies are more tuned in to environmental stressors than many adults realize. Babies raised in a stressful environment may develop long-term changes in brain functioning.

This study fits in with other evidence, including the ACE study (http://phcprimarycare.org/?p=392), which indicates that adverse experiences during infancy and childhood can lead to a lifetime of medical, social, and psychological problems. When our patients, or we ourselves, opt to become parents, we all need to realize that our children, from birth, should be viewed as treasures labeled, “Fragile. Handle with care.” It is impossible and unrealistic to prevent all stress in a baby’s environment. But if the predominant influences are supportive and loving, our kids will have a better chance at good health and happiness when they themselves grow up and become parents.

Richard Fleming, MD

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