Intense Prenatal Stress Can Affect Newborns, But Don't Stress About It, Study Says

Filed under: In The News, Research Reveals

prenatal stress

Chill out. Your stress could affect your baby. Credit: Getty

Hey, all you pregnant women, mellow out.

If you don't, your baby runs a much greater risk of being hospitalized with a nasty case of God-knows-what.

Relaxed now?

If not, you might want to put in a soothing CD of ocean sounds rather than read about this new study that links prenatal stress to newborn health.

Researchers found women who experience intense stress (divorce, death in the family) during or before pregnancy can look forward to more stress, as their babies are more likely to be sick to the point of hospitalization.

Even women who experienced profound stress almost a year before conceiving a child were 42 percent more likely to have a sick newborn.

"We speculate that this is due to effects of longer-lasting stress following the stressful life event," study researcher Nete Munk Nielsen, an epidemiologist at Statens Serum Institute in Denmark, tells MSNBC.

The study was published last week in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Nielsen and his team looked at health information from 1,670,269 Danish children born between 1977 and 2004. They asked their mothers if they experienced the death of a spouse or a child or had gotten a divorce before or during pregnancy. The children were followed from four weeks after birth until they turned 15.


"Death of a spouse, death of a child and divorce are considered some of the most devastating and stressful life events," Nielsen tells MSNBC.

But why is the stress of the mother visited upon the child?

One reason, Nielsen tells the network, could be that stress affects a person's immune system. Just as cigarettes, alcohol and a poor diet can weaken a mother's immune system, so could stress.

Then, there are maternal stress hormones.

Women produce a lot of them during pregnancy, Nielsen tells MSNBC, so it could be that moms are feeding their babies the leftovers.

Stress hormones also could affect a part of the baby brain that regulates the immune system, Kathleen M. Gustafson, director of fetal biomagnetometry at the University of Kansas Medical Center, tells MSNBC. She wasn't involved with the study, but she says it's a good hypothesis based on the data.

By the way, if a baby born with a weak immune system and an increased chance of being hospitalized aren't enough to keep you up nights, Gustafson adds stressed-out moms also run the risk of premature babies and spontaneous abortions. Oh, and their babies run an increased risk of developmental disabilities and schizophrenia.

One more thing: Don't stress out about being stressed out by everyday stress.

"This publication deals with significant, life-altering events -- not the kind of daily events we call 'stress' like getting stuck in traffic or missing your flight at the airport," Gustafson tells MSNBC. "We need to stress that, if you will. Otherwise, we're causing undue stress to women who are doing their best to maintain a healthy pregnancy."

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