By Sarah Graham
We all know that London can be a stressful place to live and work. From the crush of the Tube to the all-night sirens and the unrelenting stimulus from 360 degree advertising, our senses are constantly bombarded by the sights and sounds of city living. But if this sensory overload can sometimes overwhelm us as adults, what impact is it having on the city’s babies?
University of East London (UEL) psychologist Dr Sam Wass is on a mission to find out. The lecturer, who alongside colleague Dr Paul Howard-Jones featured in Channel 4’s 2015 Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6-Year-Olds, is recruiting London babies for his pioneering new research project on stress and noise. “I work mainly with babies, looking at the development of stress and regulatory systems – so how stressed we get and how well we regulate our stress during the first few years of life,” Dr Wass explains. “The project I’m setting up, for which we’ve just got some government funding, is to look specifically at noise and chaos in the visual environment during early life.”
The research will look at whether babies raised in noisier environments are more erratic and stressed, and how this might impact their ability to regulate stress as they grow up. “East London is an ideal catchment area [for this] because it’s very split between a lot of city workers – who are high earners, often living in quite big, posh places, with a lot of resources – and then a lot of very low earners right up close to them. It’s a perfect area to look at the effect of early life on development,” Dr Wass explains.
With his work currently based between the University of East London (www.uel.ac.uk/Staff/w/sam-wass) and the Baby-LINC lab at Cambridge University (www.baby-linc.psychol.cam.ac.uk/), one aspect of his research so far has compared babies in Cambridge with those in London. “What got me interested in the effects of early life on development was noticing differences between how Cambridge babies behave and how London babies behave – and it was even more [pronounced] in Finland, where I first started my research in a small, rural town,” he says.
Most notably, Dr Wass explains: “With London babies, the minute they touched the floor they would start moving and were in continuous motion. Those very high levels of need for stimulation were noticeable.” By contrast, the babies he worked with in Finland, “would just sit there, not moving, just looking around the room for about two minutes, completely motionless, and then they would spot something and very slowly crawl over to start playing with it.
“Cambridge babies [too] are much calmer, much happier to be left on their own, tend to physically move less, and they’ll stay for longer in one place if you leave them,” he adds. “It’s interesting because there’s currently very little research into where differences in behaviour at this age come from, or what causes them.”
As part of their upcoming research project, Dr Wass and his team are seeking parents of babies in London, to volunteer as participants. “We’re asking [their babies] to wear a little sensor, a little GoPro camera and a little microphone, which basically record how much noise they’re exposed to, and how visually complex and moving their environment is,” Dr Wass explains.
“Then we’re going to record their stress levels [by monitoring] their heart rate and their movement patterns. We’re hoping to collect about a week’s worth of data per baby, to tell us what each one’s living environment is like, and to look at why babies being raised in stressful environments, such as London, behave differently from a very early age.”
The longer-term implications of these differences in behaviour, he says, are that signs of stress – such as a constant need for stimulation, or behaving badly in stressful situations – “become magnified and accentuated over the course of development.” So a child who is constantly moving and agitated as a baby, may grow into a four-year-old having a tantrum in a shopping centre, because it’s a stressful environment and they struggle to regulate their emotions.
Interestingly, although Wass’s is the first study to look at the impact of noisy environments on babies’ development, another similar research project is also currently recruiting adult participants to monitor how city living affects mental wellbeing. The Urban Mind project (https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/cities-place-addictions-urban-mind-app– a collaboration between King’s College London, J&L Gibbons, Nomad, A&E, Van Alen Institute and the Sustainable Society Network – uses an app that allows users to input real-time data about the environment around them and how they are feeling.
Both projects use different research methodologies and are still in their early stages, but Dr Wass believes his study will prove a strong link between noise and stress levels. If that is the case, he says, the practical solutions would be to address things like crowded living environments, background noise and lack of access to outdoor spaces.
“It’s obviously not a practical solution just to move everyone into a bigger flat, but there are practical things you can do to minimise noise – like not having the TV on in the background, or using headphones for kids playing on iPad apps, to insulate the noise from other people in the household. Again, we don’t know [yet], but it also seems quite likely that spending a lot of time outdoors will help children reduce their stress levels – things like being able to run freely,” he says.
Make contact: If you are pregnant, or have a young child aged 24 months or less, and would like to take part in Dr Wass’s studies, his team at UEL would love to hear from you.
If would like to find out more, please email your name and your due date or the date of birth of your child to firstname.lastname@example.org.