Pregnancies can be stressful, but stressing over a pregnancy leads to even more stress—and new research on the subject highlights the importance of keeping stress under control during this critical time. A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that high stress levels in pregnant mothers can physically alter the health of their unborn children—opening the doors to new discoveries about infant abnormalities, infant underdevelopment, and how to combat the many health complications that can accompany childbirth, endangering both mothers and their offspring.
Researchers from The University of New Mexico, the University of Göttingen, Germany, and the German Primate Center teamed up in a project that aimed to hypothesize why the developments of disadvantaged offspring are so variable. Comparative research across 719 studies and 21 different species of mammal allowed the team to identify various prenatal stressors and how they affected mammal fetuses—with one of the most prevalent being emotional stress.
How can emotional stress change the biological development of an unborn child? Put simply, stress uses up a larger amount of the body’s energy sources, leaving less energy to contribute to fetal development. “The idea is that prenatal stress affects offspring in two different ways, depending on the timing of the stressor during pregnancy—yielding different outcomes before birth, after birth, and after weaning,” said evolutionary anthropologist and lead study author Andreas Berghänel.
The two types of stress Berghänel refers to are prenatal maternal stress and maternal stress. Prenatal maternal stress, which occurs late in gestation, results in slower fetal growth in the womb due to a lack of energy. Maternal stress, occurring after birth while infants are still dependent on their mothers, can result in a lack of development in the early stages due to lack of nutrition within breast milk.
How severely can the negative effects of maternal stress play out during a child’s lifetime? According to the researchers, a disadvantaged developmental phase, whether prenatal or maternal, can result in repercussions throughout adolescence and even into adulthood. When prevented with challenging circumstances, disadvantaged, underdeveloped infants often transition into a quickened pace of development—nature’s way of trying to make sure it can reproduce before death.
“These new results may bear some translational value for understanding why girls start their menstrual cycles earlier in poorer neighborhoods,” said Berghänel. The researchers speculate that the nutrient-lacking breast milk of stressed mothers may also explain why underprivileged offspring switch into high-speed development mode before others—in order to survive, offspring need to adapt in order seek out stable sources of nourishment.
While new research connecting childhood development to stress may be rattling, the main takeaway is that stress-related complications can be avoided; consulting your doctor over these risk factors and stress management techniques will help protect the long-term health of you and your baby.