Michael Commons newspaper article

Stressed Babies May be Prone to Trouble Later

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Psychiatrists said Tuesday there may be a physical basis linking stressed-out babies to personality disorders in adulthood.

Babies who are made to sleep alone or are not picked up and comforted enough may grow up susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and personality problems, said Dr. Michael Commons of the Harvard Medical School, and colleagues.

The idea that babies need physical contact is not new --that is why they are no longer swaddled in tight blankets and left to cry for hours. But researchers speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science said they were starting to find evidence of physical changes in the brain caused by stress in infancy.

"Parents in most cultures have infants sleep with them," Commons told a news conference. "As an infant, sleeping by yourself is very stressful. We can see this because infants cry."

Scientists have also found levels of the stress hormone cortisol to be much higher in crying babies. Commons suggested that constant stimulation by cortisol in infancy caused physical changes in the brain.

"It makes you more prone to the effects of stress, more prone to illness including mental illness and makes it harder to recover from illness," Commons said. "These are real changes and they don't go away."

He said his team was doing studies with Kenyans, people of Mayan descent and residents of Boston.

In the West, children are encouraged to be self-sufficient and face danger alone. "They don't have the emotional resources to seek comfort and consoling and the experience becomes unspeakable," Commons said.

Other cultures teach infants to stay close and look to others for emotional and physical support, he said.

"The infants sleep touching the parents," he said. "They are carried around touching the parent or some family member."

Commons cited theories that such constant support kept down levels of cortisol, and helped the cortical structures in the brain develop better.

He said illnesses such as PTSD and phobias, on the rise in industrialized countries such as the United States, barely existed in more primitive societies.

But Commons conceded he had no proof of his theory, although he planned more tests such as PET scans, which can show blood flow in the brain and indicate what structures in the brain are working.

But he said parents should think carefully about how they treat infants. "I think infants should be rubbed and hugged and kissed," he said. Children in day care should not be put to sleep in separate cribs, he said. "They should sleep touching each other."

Commons conceded the growing prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder could be because it had become fashionable to talk about.

"I think the cultural fad of PTSD is probably a slight, slight overreaction," he said. "But I work in a mental hospital and clinical instances of PTSD and phobia are just way, way up. I think there's a strong organic basis."

from http://my.excite.com/news/r/980217/15/news-stress (no longer available)