Stress during pregnancy linked to nervous disposition in the infant, higher probability of illness

In a study published in the journal Development and Psychopathology, researchers from University of California San Francisco (UCSF) discovered that pregnant mothers under considerable stress during their pregnancy may have babies with nervous disposition and weaker resilience to illness.

According to an entry on, a pregnant mother under stress during her second trimester may affect the development of the baby’s nervous system, leading to subtle effects on the baby’s temperament, such as a diminished ability to regulate emotions, resulting in less smiling and difficulty in socializing and engaging with other kids.

The research team looked at the stress levels of 151 low-to-middle-income women who were between 12 and 24 weeks pregnant throughout their pregnancy and after delivery. The mothers reported the number of stressful life events they had experienced during pregnancy, such as illness, relationship problems, housing difficulties, and legal issues.

The team compared the reported stress levels of the participants with objective levels of stress in their six-month-old offspring. After a brief play session, the mothers were instructed to look at their babies’ faces without physical interaction with them for two minutes. The infants’ cardiac function was monitored during this time.

The babies whose mothers were under considerable stress during pregnancy were 22 percent more “reactive” to stress stimuli, and they also recovered less quickly, demonstrating weaker resilience.

High reactivity is “indicative of a stronger decrease in parasympathetic nervous system activity in response to challenge,” according to first author Nicole Bush, Ph.D., of the UCSF departments of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, and UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences.

“This isn’t automatically good or bad, but we know that being highly reactive places children at risk for a range of psychopathological problems, particularly anxiety and depression, as well as externalizing problems, such as disruptive behavior, especially if they experience adverse family and school environments.”

However, some children with high reactivity to stress may still develop better-than-average social skills and behaviors, “because greater reactivity can make them more sensitive to the benefits of positive relationships and experiences in their environments,” added Bush.

In addition, the stress test showed that the babies whose mothers reported a high perceived stress in pregnancy and post-delivery have a higher temperamental “surgency” level by eight percent.

Surgency includes behaviors like laughing and smiling, as well as the willingness to engage with other people. These same babies born to the highly-stressed mothers were also found to have difficulty in self-regulation or managing emotions, such as soothing themselves in periods of high stress.

“At this point, we don’t know the lifelong impact of higher reactivity and lower surgency and self-regulation for these babies,” Bush said. “A lot will depend on other factors, such as families and communities. Providing healthy environments post-natally could buffer the negative impact of high reactivity and lower surgency and self-regulation.”

Previous studies have revealed that a mother’s psychological state can indeed have an effect on the development of the fetus inside the womb.

The study is further detailed on the UCSF website.

Reducing stress

For pregnant women, especially for first-time mothers, the whole journey of pregnancy can indeed be a stressful one. However, as the study above pointed out, your mental state can affect your baby as they grow. (Related: 10 Natural Stress Relief Tips & How to Create a Serene Space.)

Here are some simple ways on how you can reduce stress and ensure that your baby feels good all the time:

  • Eat well — Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines and trout are found to soothe depression.
  • Rest — Relaxing is good for your body and mind, as well as your baby’s. Taking the time to focus on your baby and its movements may help take your mind off stressful ideas.
  • Light exercise — Working out can improve your mood. Swimming and yoga are some recommended exercises for expectant mothers.

Read more ways to relieve stress at

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