Based on a small study of 25 women and their children, German scientists are proposing that maternal stress can spread to a baby in the womb with lasting effects in the form of the child — and the child as an adult — being less able to handle stress her or himself.
In truth, studies that focus on the role of maternal well-being and stress tend to leave me wary as these often over-emphasize the effects of a mother’s state of mind on her developing child. There’s still stigma attached to saying you have a psychiatric condition, that you have depression or anxiety and that these can adversely affect a child. Also, mothers were once blamed for “causing” a child to become autistic by being emotionally withdrawn “refrigerator mothers.” The lingering notion of “mother-blame” as “causing” autism (and who knows what else!) may be why a recent study linking anti-depressant drug use in mothers to an increased risk for autism has been regarded warily.
According to the study published in Translational Psychiatry, a receptor for stress hormones actually seems to undergo a biological change in unborn children if their mother is stressed. The researchers underscore that the mothers in their study were experiencing severe stress from “exceptional home circumstances” in the form of the “threat of constant violence” such as most women “would not be exposed to … day in and day out,” says the BBC.
What’s notable about this study is that a biological change at the hormonal level seems to occur in developing babies whose mothers suffered such stress. By looking at the genes of both the mothers and of their children at the age of 10 or 19, the researchers found changes to a gene, the glucocorticoid receptor (GR), which helps the body regulate stress. The children studied were more affected by stress both in their psychological and hormonal functioning:
As people, they tend to be more impulsive and may struggle with their emotions, explain the researchers, who carried out detailed interviews with the adolescents.
Professor Thomas Elbert, one of the lead researchers at the University of Konstanz, said: “It would appear that babies who get signals from their mum that they are being born into a dangerous world are faster responders. They have a lower threshold for stress and seem to be more sensitive to it.”
Researchers, who plan to consider their study with more participants, emphasized that other factors (including the social environment a child is raised in) can affect a child’s developing stress as well as their response to it.
Again, the study‘s authors emphasize that the women were living with “intimate partner violence.” But finding a “plausible mechanism by which prenatal stress may program adult psychosocial function” does suggest ways to address the health of a child, and just as much in the nine months before she or he is born.
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