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Press Releases : 2015 Press Releases

Stressful Environments Can Have Long-Term Health Effects on Infants

Monday, March 30, 2015  
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Stressful Environments Can Have Long-Term Health Effects on Infants

— Leading Nursing Journal Publishes Research About Early Stresses

Influencing Newborn Brain Development —


Washington, DC, March 30, 2015— Neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) can be stressful environments for infants due to bright lights, noisy alarms, and painful interventions like intravenous lines. Researchers have suggested that the stress associated with the NICU environment can have long-term health effects on brain development.


The March/April 2015 issue of Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing (JOGNN) from the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN) includes two articles in which the authors explore the effects of early stress on infant neurological development. In “Nurse Management of the NICU Environment Is Critical to Optimal Infant Development,” Rosemary WhiteTraut summarizes the potential harm of stress on infant brain development and highlights a multisensory developmental intervention tool. The Auditory, Tactile, Visual, and Vestibular (ATVV) intervention offers developmentally appropriate sensory stimuli, including the mother’s voice, moderate touch stroking, and eye to eye contact with the mother, and vestibular stimuli via rocking.


Rosario Montirosso, PsyD, and Livio Provenzi, PsyD, describe the physiological processing of stress in “Implications of Epigenetics and Stress Regulation on Research and Developmental Care of Preterm Infants.” The early postnatal period is a sensitive time for development, especially for the brain and neurological system. During this time, the infant brain is especially sensitive and receptive to stimuli. Stressful stimuli (such as those experienced in the NICU) can negatively affect brain development, and early chronic exposure to painful stimuli has been associated with altered neurological and hormone responses and with long-lasting brain changes. These epigenetic alterations may be minimized by NICU practices designed to moderate the effect of the environment, minimize painful and stressful procedures, reduce parent-infant separation, and facilitate the parent-infant relationship.


Nurses working in NICUs must provide necessary care in this environment and minimize stimuli that can be stressful to newborns and have the potential to negatively affect brain development. Some ways to mitigate the stress of the NICU environment include skin-to-skin contact between the infant and parent, dimming the lights, human milk feeding, and soothing touch. Extensive research demonstrates that caring touch and human social interaction aid the healthy growth of newborn infants. Supportive parenting can also act as a reliever of stress. In fact, more numerous or longer-length parental visits in the NICU are associated with less stress and more stable behavior in preterm infants.

“Neonatal nurses continue to seek a balance between soothing infants in the NICU and providing care in a stressful environment,” said AWHONN CEO, Lynn Erdman, MN, RN, FAAN. “More research is needed to better understand the effect of painful and stressful environments on infants and how nurses can best facilitate the parent-child connection for these vulnerable newborns.”  


For media interviews, contact:

Kelly Mack for AWHONN






The Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing (JOGNN), is an internationally ranked scientific and technical journal published bimonthly by the Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses. JOGNN is online at



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