One More Thing For Pregnant Women To Worry About: Stress Itself

Studies link chronic stress to the health of the baby

Image: Vocativ
May 30, 2017 at 4:14 PM ET

Alcohol, soft cheeses, deli meats, too much caffeine — these are but a few of the many things pregnant women are strictly cautioned against for the health of their fetuses. All of these prohibitions can make pregnancy feel like a stressful exercise in avoidance. Now, a new study underlines another thing for expectant moms to worry about: stress itself. Perfect.

Past research has already linked stress during pregnancy to everything from low birth weight to lower IQ in babies to behavioral issues. The good news, though, is that this latest study found that it’s chronic, not acute, stress that really affects the fetus.

Researchers from the University of Zurich tested 34 pregnant women who underwent amniocentesis, a prenatal testing procedure in which a needle is inserted into the amniotic sac. This is a good way to measure the impact of short-term stress as it causes a limited release of the stress hormone cortisol in a woman’s body. During the amniocentesis, the researchers measured the amount of cortisol in a woman’s saliva, as well as corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which stimulates the release of cortisol, in her amniotic fluid. They found that there was no link between the two — meaning that the mom’s stress reaction to the amniocentesis didn’t affect the fetal environment.

“The baby obviously remains protected against negative effects in case of acute, short-term stress to the mother,” said study co-author Ulrike Ehlert in a press release.

But when they looked at stress questionnaires filled out by the same moms-to-be, they did find a link between chronic stress and the level of stress hormones in the fetal environment.

“If the mother is stressed for a longer period of time, the CRH level in the amniotic fluid increases,” explained lead author Pearl La Marca-Ghaemmaghami in the release. They looked at fetal size at the time of the amniocentesis and at birth, and they found that higher levels of the stress hormone in the amniotic fluid were associated with accelerated growth — and that might be a problem for developing organs.

The researchers recommend that chronically stressed out moms-to-be “seek support from a therapist to handle the stress better.”

But, even when prolonged stress is unavoidable, there’s reason to be hopeful. As La Marca-Ghaemmaghami points out, “A secure bond between the mother and child after the birth can neutralize negative effects of stress during pregnancy.”