How to Cope with Infant Trauma
This article originally appeared in St. Louis Kids magazine.
Often I hear people say that that “it is a good thing that the baby was so young” when he or she was exposed to traumatic events in the womb, infancy and early childhood as the child can’t remember or feel these incidents. This harmful view implies that the child is OK nonetheless. Until the 1980s, the medical and psychological professions believed that babies had “infantile amnesia” prior to age three. It was thought that babies could not feel pain from medical surgeries and were not capable of remembering, as they were in a preverbal state without a fully developed brain. New evidence in prenatal and perinatal psychology, including research and writings by David Chamberlain, William Emerson, and the neurobiologists Alan Schore and David Siegel, have shown that prenates and young babies do have emotions, feel pain, and are capable of memory and intelligence. Parents need to understand this topic in order to prevent, recognize, and heal early trauma.
Prenates, infants and toddlers are very vulnerable to trauma. These earliest wounds are registered in their body-mind-spirit systems. Painful issues need to be addressed as early as possible. Unresolved trauma affects the well-being of the individual no matter how young. This trauma becomes imprinted and more layered with each subsequent trauma that is received which makes it harder to treat or to understand the underlying cause. Neurological research shows that there is a direct link between individual’s experiences and the development of their brains and nervous systems. Trauma and stress can imprint the in the brain’s amygdala, profoundly affecting long term physical and mental health. Learning capacity, emotional stability, secure attachment, physical coordination, and self-esteem can all be impaired. Many parents may not realize that their babies have been traumatized, are acutely distressed and require both medical and psychological treatment. A baby or toddler who receives prolonged exposure to stressful conditions feels sad, angry, anxious, fearful and helpless. Without appropriate relief, there can be short and long term suffering. Psychological distress in utero, at birth and during the first three years is real.
What are the causes of early trauma?
- Exposure to alcohol or drugs in utero
- Maternal stress overload during the pregnancy and maternal depression
- Traumatic birth resulting from procedures such as induced labor, Caesarean section, use of vacuum extraction and forceps
- Premature birth and time spent apart from parents and NICU interventions
- Umbilical cord wrapped around neck at birth
- Loss of loved ones
- Not feeling wanted
- Falls and accidents
- Prolonged illness and hospitalizations
- Physical and emotional abuse
What are signs of trauma in infants?
- Glossed over/and or crossed eyes
- Avoidance of eye contact
- Nursing or feeding difficulties
- Excessive inconsolable and or high pitched crying
- Startle response
- Poor muscle tone or too much tension in the muscles
- Jerky movements of head, arms, and legs
- Easily overly stimulated
- Arching of the back
- Inability to orient well in new surroundings
- Difficulty being soothed
What are the signs of trauma in young children?
- Learning difficulties
- Unexplained feelings of anxiety
- Coordination and gait problems
- Speech delays
- Toilet training challenges
- Inappropriate aggression, rage or shyness
- Health challenges
- Desire not to be touched
How to treat early trauma
Early trauma research is now extensive and many new treatment options are available. It is important to work with an infant and child mental health professional who knows how to observe the baby’s/child’s nonverbal cues, to talk compassionately to him about what was experienced and felt, and to involve the child in play sessions that help clear the experience of the trauma. The professional will also teach you skills so you can support your child’s healing from the trauma. You will know that healing has occurred when cues no longer stimulate the baby’s “fight of flight” stress reaction and the sadness, grief, protest and rage has been resolved.
Peter Levine and Maggie Kline have written a wonderful book on this subject called Trauma through a Child’s Eyes.