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Study: Infants Can ‘Catch’ Stress From Their Mothers

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Emotions and physiological experiences can be transmitted from one person to another, and infants can “catch” feelings of stress passed down through their mothers.  (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Emotions and physiological experiences can be transmitted from one person to another, and infants can “catch” feelings of stress passed down through their mothers. (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)

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San Francisco, Calif. (CBS SACRAMENTO) – Emotions and physiological experiences can be transmitted from one person to another, and infants can “catch” feelings of stress passed down through their mothers.

A new study from the University of California, San Francisco and New York University finds that stress and other emotional conditions can emanate from one individual to another as a “contagion.” The researchers suggest that a mother’s stressful emotional state can be mirrored and felt their children.

“Our research shows that infants ‘catch’ and embody the physiological residue of their mothers’ stressful experiences,” lead researcher Sara Waters, postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Francisco, tells Health News Digest. “Our earliest lessons about how to manage stress and strong negative emotions in our day-to-day lives occur in the parent-child relationship.”

The researchers analyzed emotion and cardiovascular sensors in babies whose mothers were asked to perform the stressful task of giving a five-minute speech and undergoing a question-and-answer evaluation. The mothers who received more negative feedback from the evaluators experienced more negative emotions and increased cardiac stress than those who heard positive feedback.

After being reunited with their babies, the 12-to-14-month-old infants appeared to “track” their mother’s reactions, with an increase shown in their heart rate that became stronger over time.

“Before infants are verbal and able to express themselves fully, we can overlook how exquisitely attuned they are to the emotional tenor of their caregivers,” said Waters. “Your infant may not be able to tell you that you seem stressed or ask you what is wrong, but our work shows that, as soon as she is in your arms, she is picking up on the bodily responses accompanying your emotional state and immediately begins to feel in her own body your own negative emotion.”

“These findings suggest that mothers’ stressful experiences are contagious to their infants and that members of close pairs, like mothers and infants, can reciprocally influence each other’s dynamic physiological reactivity,” write the researchers.

The emotional analysis data, published in Psychological Science, between the 69 mothers and their infants was intended to further past research showing an emotional connection between intimate individuals.

“For many years now, social scientists have been interested in how emotions are transmitted from one person to another,” senior author Wendy Berry Mendes, the Sarlo/Ekman Associate Professor of Emotion at UCSF, told Health News Digest.

“Indeed, research in the social sciences has shown that emotions can be “contagious” and that there is emotional synchrony between romantic partners.”

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