Stress in Expecting Mothers Is Passed On To Babies


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 Also, mothers were once blamed for “causing” a child to become autistic by being emotionally withdrawn “refrigerator mothers.”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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Elena T.
Elena P5 years ago

Thank you :)

Carole R.
Carole R6 years ago

Interesting. I can see how extreme stress could affect an unborn baby because they are so closely attached to their mother. Nerve impulses must go into the child to some level. I do believe, however, that normal stress has little affect.

Carole K.
Carole K6 years ago

Hogwash!! Our world does not need any more psychiatric sexist "mother blame" a la Sigmund Freud pseudo-science than it already has, thank you so very much! A mere 25 subjects does not serious research study make. And even if the findings are true, could not this DNA encoding be a coping mechanism at work in terms of evolutionary response of organism to environment? The world continues to be a dangerous place, for some women more than others. Very often pregnant women are victimized by the significant persons in her environment that should be supporting & protecting her during her pregnancy; & these unfortunate mothers-to-be often have little control over the dynamics that would cause them to feel stressed. Our challenge in present day society is to give aid, comfort & loving support to women during pregnancy so as to pass these positive emotions on to the baby in it's mother's womb. Set aside the sexist mother blame in order to promote development of future human organisms!

wizzy wizard
wiz wi6 years ago

and in latter life of the child. its the other way round giving stress to us parents.(is it pay back time while in the womb?

dve d.
aa b6 years ago

we knew that 40 years ago

David N.
David N6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Lika S.
Lika P6 years ago

So people who are violent against pregnant women should be arrested for abusing both the mother and her unborn.

Ira Mizdoch
Ira Mizdoch6 years ago

this is old truth

Julie V.
Julie V6 years ago

I wonder if all the scientists in this "study" were men.

Suze O.
Suze Q6 years ago

There is nothing new about this finding, I learned years ago prior to my first pregnancy that everything crosses the placental barrier. If alcohol and drugs affect the fetus, stress would also, just plain common sense. During my first pregnancy, my OB-GYN told me to cut back because I had trouble getting pregnant due to stress; and my first pregnancy was 1969.