Stress during pregnancy can harm your baby - Part 1

Life is really busy, right? While busy can be exciting, more often than not it also leads to a lot of stress! We all know that prolonged stress is harmful for our health and it’s estimated that 95% of all diseases stem from stress. What many pregnant women may not know is that stress during pregnancy can also be harmful to their babies. Research shows that when mums-to-be experience stressful pregnancies, there is an increased likelihood that their children will develop physical, behavioural and emotional problems.Dr Monique Robinson has been researching this area for over a decade and shares her research in Chapter 2 of my book Inspired Children: How the leading minds of today raise their kids.

I interviewed Dr Robinson on the Inspired Children radio program where she shared the impact of stress in pregnancy on babies as well as ways that pregnant mothers can reduce their stress and I’ve summarised some of the key points from our interview in this article an a follow-up article as a two part series on my blog.

Stress is on the rise and so is ADD and ADHD

Have you noticed that there is an increase the overall stress levels in our society today when compared with just the last decade? Most people feel some level of stress on a daily basis especially if they have children. Pregnant women and no exception as this can be a highly stressful time of life. The worry is that increased stress during pregnancy can be linked to the growing the number of children with emotional, behavioural and other issues like ADD and ADHD. So what can parents do?

The first thing is to educate mums and dads-to-be that there is a biological connection between stress during pregnancy and the emotional and mental health of their babies. While some level of anxiety is a normal part of daily life, prolonged stress can adversely affect the development of your child long before a baby is even born.

It's the little things that matter

Stressful events happen in the world on a daily basis – some affect individuals while others can affect a nation. Most pregnant women will not experience stress from a cataclysmic event like a major earthquake or man-made natural disaster. In fact, it's the events that occur in our everyday lives that have the greatest potential to do harm the developing baby. Financial issues, death in the family, relationship problems, worrying about what a mother-to-be can and can’t eat can all add up and result in more and more stress for both the mother and the baby. Individually, these things don’t seem like they could have an impact, but when multiple factors are at play all at once or occur sequentially over a long time, they can not only have an impact on the pregnancy woman’s health but also her child’s development. This is how it works:

The physiological impact of stress

When a pregnant woman is exposed to stress factors, her body automatically goes into'fight, flight or freeze' mode as a defence mechanism to help her survive. Stress triggers the release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol which prepares the body to react and these hormones increase the heart rate, constrict blood vessels, and prepare the muscles and lungs to do more work. The body becomes hypersensitive to stimuli in an effort to ensure that there is no delay in the transmission of nerve signals in the body so the mother can have a quick response time to get away from danger! While these reactions may beneficial in the short term if there is a physical danger the mother needs to get out of the way of like a moving car, however, our main life stresses aren’t usually solved by moving more quickly for example: money problems, relationship issues or the death of a family or friend!  

Our body’s aren’t designed to maintain a heightened level of  stress for long periods of time, as a result, heart muscles and various organs become overworked and fatigued.These stress hormones also pulse through the baby’s bloodstream via the umbilical chord, so the baby is also in a heightened state of stress causing harm to the growingfoetus.

Nature versus Nurture

The longstanding debate of nature versus nurture informs our understanding the physical impact of stress on both mother and child. Although it is true that a foetus will inherit certain genetic tendencies from its parents, it is the exposure to environment – that is the stimuli within the womb – that determines which genes get switched on and which get switched off, therefore making the baby predisposed to certain conditions later in life.

When an unborn child is constantly in an environment that is flooded with stress hormones and always in 'ready-for-battle' mode, the body and brain will develop in response to this heightened state of stress.  Research has shown that babies experiencing a calmer environment in the womb are more likely to develop a larger forebrain and be more intelligent. On the other hand, babies experiencing heightened stress in the womb are more likely to develop larger muscles (making them stronger to tackle the danger), a larger hindbrain and are more hyper-alert to the environment helping them be more ready for ‘fighting and defending themselves’.  That is, the environment the child is experiencing in the womb is shaping and preparing it for survival in the outside world.

The stress hormones in the mother’s blood also cause her body to reduce the flow of key nutrients to her womb, which in turn starves her baby of valuable trace elements, vitamins, and minerals needed for body and brain development. Research shows that stressful pregnancies are more likely to result in underweight babies with lower IQs who are more prone to mental issues like chronic depression, irritability, and ADD and ADHD and other behavioural issues.

What's a mother to do?

A body can either be in growth and repair or fight or flight. We need to give the developing foetus the best chance for physical and psychological growth and that occurs most effectively in a calm and safe environment. While the physiological and psychological impact of prolonged exposure to stress during pregnancy carries a huge weight on the health of an unborn baby, going through a stressful pregnancy will not automatically result in a negative impact on the baby. While of course it is imperative for pregnant mums to reduce their exposure to stress where possible, where this was not possible, for example with the death of a loved one, serious financial issues or other unmanageable stresses, it is important to know that the human body is truly amazing and with the right stimuli after childbirth and throughout your child's formative years, your baby will be able to recuperate from a difficult start in life and remediate some of the potentially long lasting negative effects of stress.

Stress can greatly impact the mental, emotional, and physical development of a child.As such, expectant mothers need to take every precaution to guard against becoming stressed and fatigued. It is not just the responsibility of the mother, if everyone in the family (and for that matter in society) supports pregnant women, we support not only that mother but the physical and emotional development of their babies – our future generations.

In part 2, Dr Robinson talks about early detection and support for children with physical, behavioural and emotional issues.

About Dr. Monique Robinson

As an Australian Rotary Health Post-Doctoral Research fellow at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, Dr. Monique Robinson's research revolves around determining the early life risk factors that later lead to mental health problems in kids and teens. She has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and has garnered numerous accolades for her contribution to this area of research. Monique is a registered psychologist and she is one of the contributors to the book: Inspired Children: How the leading minds of today raise their kids, where she goes into more detail about her research and how mothers can manage stress in pregnancy to give their babies the best start in life. In the field of Prenatal, Child, and Adolescent Mental Health, one of Monique’s biggest research projects to date looks at the stress experienced by mothers during pregnancy and how these common stress factors can increase the risk of behavioural problems in children.