Today, I’d like to share what exactly happens to the body when your child experiences stress, and dig deeper into one of the main modern day conundrums families face that may deepen this stress: early separation between mother and child.

The biology of your child’s stress

Here is what is happening from a biological standpoint: your child’s executive functioning, including impulse control and task learning, occurs in the pre-frontal cortex. Your child’s emotional reactivity is carried out by the amygdala. Typically the pre-frontal cortex is the Captain of the ship; however, when under stress, the amygdala gets larger and dominates relative behavior. The amygdala and its fight-or-flight response is activated in a primal attempt, to assure survival. As a result, the critical thinking, pre-frontal cortex slows down, and the stress hormones, including cortisol, are over produced.

The impact of cortisol in the human stress-response negatively affects critical thinking, memory, and the ability to stay on task. Moreover, the over production of cortisol levels narrows the size of the hippocampus, where memory and learning reside. This greatly impairs cognitive behavior. Also, long-term negative environmental stresses such as poverty, can elicit the same stress regulatory system. If stress is sustained and ongoing, it has the potential to forevermore change your child’s brain architecture, including that of the pre-frontal cortex, hippocampus and amygdala. This will affect not only reasoning, impulse, and fear control, but also cognition and task mastery.

Child cortisol levels, early attachment, and stress

Today, your child may spend the largest portion of his day in a nursery school, with a babysitter or a nanny. This has the potential to cause him undo stress and he may grieve the separation. Though nature conspires to keep mother and child attached through hormone production and breastfeeding during the early stages of childhood, our culture encourages early separation of mother from child. Babies in other cultures, where it is the norm for babies to be attached to their mothers, have the ability to learn in a relaxed state because they are always with their mother in those early years. In the United States, mothers go back to work after a few months, or even just a few weeks or days, forcing our children to operate early on from a heightened state of reaction –in a constant strategy of fight or flight mode.

Research tells us that babies who are emotionally stressed from being detached too early from mom have elevated cortisol levels that are sustained, unless there is a positive compensation or positive reattachment between mother and child. If your child never receives the sense of security that comes with early bonding, he may grow into an adolescent who lives in a constant heightened state of reactivity – a constant state of fight or flight.

Compensating for a mother’s absence

Since early bonding is essential to your child’s security and well-being, you must find ways to compensate for the time you spend away from your baby. One of the ways you can do this is to find high quality daycare. Research has found that children’s cortisol is lower in daycare that is of higher quality. These daycare environments may take into account children’s needs when they’re having attachment issues, whereas there is potentially less attention in lower quality nurseries. An even better situation would be if we can create more daycare environments within the work environment, so that mothers can check in with children during lunch time and break times, and have more opportunities to bond and to soothe their babies, lowering their cortisol levels. That would be the best of all possible worlds.

While our Western culture has made early separation from your child the norm, you can find ways to compensate for your time away. And, there are many ways to help your child deal with the stresses of modern day life, starting with taking an active role in your child’s wellbeing from the very beginning.


  • Dr. Gail Gross

    Author and Parenting, Relationships, and Human Behavior Expert

    Dr. Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., M.Ed., a member of the American Psychological Association (APA) and member of APA Division 39, is a nationally recognized family, child development, and human behavior expert, author, and educator. Her positive and integrative approach to difficult issues helps families navigate today’s complex problems. Dr. Gross is frequently called upon by national and regional media to offer her insight on topics involving family relationships, education, behavior, and development issues. A dependable authority, Dr. Gross has contributed to broadcast, print and online media including CNN, the Today Show, CNBC's The Doctors, Hollywood Reporter, FOX radio, FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Times of India, People magazine, Parents magazine, Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine, USA Today, Univision, ABC, CBS, and KHOU's Great Day Houston Show. She is a veteran radio talk show host as well as the host of the nationally syndicated PBS program, “Let’s Talk.” Also, Dr. Gross has written a semi-weekly blog for The Huffington Post and has blogged at since 2013. Recently, Houston Women's Magazine named her One of Houston's Most Influential Women of 2016. Dr. Gross is a longtime leader in finding solutions to the nation’s toughest education challenges. She co-founded the first-of-its kind Cuney Home School with her husband Jenard, in partnership with Texas Southern University. The school serves as a national model for improving the academic performance of students from housing projects by engaging the parents. Dr. Gross also has a public school elementary and secondary campus in Texas that has been named for her. Additionally, she recently completed leading a landmark, year-long study in the Houston Independent School District to examine how stress-reduction affects academics, attendance, and bullying in elementary school students, and a second study on stress and its effects on learning. Such work has earned her accolades from distinguished leaders such as the Dalai Lama, who presented her with the first Spirit of Freedom award in 1998. More recently, she was honored in 2013 with the Jung Institute award. She also received the Good Heart Humanitarian Award from Jewish Women International, Perth Amboy High School Hall of Fame Award, the Great Texan of the Year Award, the Houston Best Dressed Hall of Fame Award, Trailblazer Award, Get Real New York City Convention's 2014 Blogging Award, and Woman of Influence Award. Dr. Gross’ book, The Only Way Out Is Through, is available on Amazon now and offers strategies for life’s transitions including coping with loss, drawing from dealing with the death of her own daughter. Her next book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, is also available on Amazon now and teaches parents how to enhance their child’s learning potential by understanding and recognizing their various development stages. And her first research book was published by Random House in 1987 on health and skin care titled Beautiful Skin. Dr. Gross has created 8 audio tapes on relaxation and stress reduction that can be purchased on Most recently, Dr. Gross’s book, The Only Way Out is Through, was named a Next Generation Indie Book Awards Silver Medal finalist in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the categories of Death & Dying as well as Grief. Her latest book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, was the National Parenting Product Awards winner in 2019, the Nautilus Book Awards winner in 2019, ranked the No. 1 Best New Parenting Book in 2019 and listed among the Top 10 Parenting Books to Read in 2020 by BookAuthority, as well as the Next Generation Indie Book Awards Gold Medal winner in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the category of How-To. Dr. Gross received a BS in Education and an Ed.D. (Doctorate of Education) with a specialty in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Houston. She earned her Master’s degree in Secondary Education with a focus on Psychology from the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Dr. Gross received her second PhD in Psychology, with a concentration in Jungian studies. Dr. Gross was the recipient of Kappa Delta Pi An International Honor Society in Education. Dr. Gross was elected member of the International English Honor Society Sigma Tau Delta.