What Preemies Teach Us About Managing Stress

What Preemies Teach Us About Managing Stress
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Premature babies are under enormous stress. When doctors observe closely, they see that preemies are actually providing clues about how adults could help them manage their stress. You can do the same thing with your preschooler. Observing your child closely, you can see how they are already trying to manage their stress, and you can help them build on their own strategies.

Forty years ago, new technologies emerged to help premature babies survive. This was great news for parents and the premature babies themselves, who now had a fighting chance.

Unexpectedly, however, doctors and parents were encountering a new problem: Many severely premature babies were becoming depressed and were giving up their fight for life after a few weeks in the hospital nursery.

What was going on?

Doctors were treating babies as objects

Heidelise Als, a clinician and researcher at Harvard Medical School, wanted to find out. She began to observe the babies’ lives in the hospital. Doctors and nurses were constantly handling them to check heart rates or clear lungs, and the handling could be rough. For example, sometimes babies would be strapped down so they wouldn’t wiggle away from the machines that were helping them breathe.1

Without realizing it, doctors and nurses were treating babies as objects, without regard for their emotional well-being. In their own way, these extremely young babies were communicating distress. For example, when they were turned over by nurses, their limbs would splay out and they would grab for someone or something to hold on to.

The doctors and nurses were too busy treating them to pay attention. After a few weeks of being handled like this, some of the babies would go limp and stop breathing.2

Finding a better way

A former teacher, Als knew there had to be a better way. She began to watch the babies closely, looking for clues about how to help them cope with their stress.

As Ellen Galinsky describes in her book Mind in the Making, “These observations led to solutions. For example, if the baby’s hands play out, give the baby something to hold on to. If the baby is squirming under the bright lights, make the lighting softer. If the baby is getting agitated, cradle the baby with your hands until his or her breathing becomes more stable.” Als and her colleagues were letting the babies teach them how to help.3

The results were dramatic. Compared to the babies in “traditional” care, the babies under Als’s sensitive and responsive care did much better. They gained weight faster, suffered from fewer lung problems, and were released from the hospital sooner.4

Als had rediscovered something really important. A tiny premature baby is not just a collection of fragile organs; they are a tiny person under a lot of stress. They are trying to cope with the stress. If we observe them closely, we can see the signals they’re sending and respond with comfort and support.

How does your child manage stress?

This same insight applies to preschoolers, who are under plenty of stress, too. Their brains are developing at breakneck pace. Their capacity to feel emotions is running well ahead of their capacity to manage those emotions. We can help them in the same way: by closely observing how they try to cope with stress and supporting them to implement their own strategies.

For example, a preschooler having a temper tantrum might flail about with their arms and legs. Observing, you might also see them hugging themselves in an effort to bring those flying limbs under control. You could help them build on his own efforts by hugging him gently.

Or a child anxious about a parent’s departure might stomp his feet on the ground. Perhaps you can both do some quick jumping jacks before you leave, helping your child release some anxiety and finding laughter together in this stressful moment.

Preschoolers and premature babies are both sending us clues about how we can help them help themselves cope with stress. It’s up to us to catch the clues and act on them.

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What Preemies Teach Us About Managing Stress
  1. Ellen Galinsky, Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, p. 262.
  2. Galinsky, p. 262.
  3. Galinsky, p. 264.
  4. Galinsky, pp. 264–266; NIDCAP, http://nidcap.org/en/families/what-is-nidcap/.