Is Newborn Affected by Parents Arguing Around Her?
Around 3.6 million babies are born each year, according to psychologist John Gottman. While the birth of a baby is generally a happy time, it also brings many changes and, often, a lot of stress. For some couples, the extra stress can lead to increased fighting. If you have a newborn, you should avoid fighting in front of her because the effects of your fighting can be very damaging.
Having a newborn can place a great strain on a marriage. Two-thirds of the couples Gottman studied found that the birth of their first child significantly reduced their happiness in their marriage. Exhaustion from caring for a newborn, sleep deprivation, lack of intimacy and postpartum depression all contribute to marital dissatisfaction. When parents feel overwhelmed and disconnected from each other, the amount of conflict between them increases. As a result, new parents often find themselves fighting.
Witnessing parents fight creates emotional stress for a newborn. Babies are highly attuned to their parents' facial expressions and tones of voice. Like little sponges, they absorb their parents' emotions. If a newborn's parents feel sad or worried, she may also feel sad or worried. Parental anger may frighten a newborn, causing her to cry. A newborn under stress because of her parents' fighting may become fussy, eat poorly and become difficult to console.
Fighting hurts a newborn by distracting her parents and making them less responsive to her. Parents who feel stressed out and depressed by fighting may not have the emotional energy to respond sensitively to a newborn's crying and need for comfort and attention. If the newborn cries, her parents may be annoyed that she is distracting them from what they are trying to do -- fight. Instead of finding out what she needs or calming her down in a sensitive way, they may leave her crying alone in her crib or try to force her to be quiet by putting a bottle or pacifier in her mouth.
A parent's emotional unavailability threatens a newborn. If parents become unresponsive to their newborn's needs because of their fighting, it can harm her relationship with them. The Still Face paradigm -- an experiment studying what happens when a once-responsive mother stops interacting normally with her baby -- demonstrates how distressed babies become when their efforts to engage a parent's attention are ignored. A baby in the experiment may look away, cry and become increasingly agitated in her efforts to get her mother to interact with her. Even if the mother stops interacting with a baby for as little as two minutes, the baby may remain agitated and wary of her mother even after her mother begins interacting with her normally again.
- And Baby Makes Three: The Six-Step Plan for Preserving Marital Intimacy and Rekindling Romance After Baby Arrives; John Gottman
- University of Missouri Extension: Helping Infants and Toddlers Adjust to Divorce
- Zero to Three: Early Child Mental Health
- Handbook of Infant Mental Health; Charles H. Zeanah