Stress During Pregnancy can Affect a Child's Health

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

"Seeds of health are planted even before you draw your first breath, and that the nine short months of life in the womb shape your health as long as you live." These words of Sharon Begley and William Underhill in a Newsweek article Shaped By Life In The Womb eloquently describe the importance of the gestational period on an individual for his or her life-time.

Some scientists now believe that the effect of the life in the womb on emotional and physical health may be greater than that of the genes we inherit. The conditions in the uterus, ranging from mother's hormones to the nutrients supplied through the placenta, may significantly determine how a baby's liver, heart, kidneys, brain and mind will function during the adulthood.

In the Seventies and the Eighties, we learned that if mothers during pregnancy ingested such substances as the alcohol, cocaine, caffeine, and tobacco, they could harm their babies' physical and mental health, notably, lower the birth weight, height, and head circumference, and impair attention, memory, intelligence, and temperament. Likewise, we have known for a while that if a mother experiences excessive stress or suffers from an emotional trauma, her baby may be born with certain deficiencies which may persist into adulthood and cause more complications.

In the Nineties, we are beginning to understand how the stress and mother's emotional state affects her unborn baby. Take, for example, a stress hormone called Cortisol. When we are under stress, we manufacture cortisol. If you experience occasional stress, cortisol doesn't create a problem. However, if you remain under stress for a long time, cortisol may be too much for your body to handle. Cortisol can cause high blood pressure problems. A mother's excessive Cortisol can reach the baby in the womb and raise the baby's set point for blood pressure forever. This baby, when reach adulthood, is likely to suffer from high blood pressure.

Many mothers during pregnancy face extremely stressful circumstances. They are confronted with such unhealthy situations as the break-up of their marriage, physical or emotional abuse, open infidelity or simply disinterested and uninvolved partners who prefer staying out to staying home and supporting their pregnant partners. These mothers experience constant stress, shame, loneliness and, sometimes, clinical depression during pregnancy or after giving birth.

The babies of these mothers are exposed to a variety of stress hormones, toxins and malnutrition inside the womb. Some of these babies will continue to live in the same or often worse noxious environment. No wonder some will later become hyperactive, underactive, inattentive, or temperamental and exhibit poor self-control. Many of these children are later medicated with Ritalin or antidepressants. Not everyone understands that the problems a child exhibits today may have resulted from events that occurred several years ago.

Most of the gynecologists and obstetricians I have talked with are psychologically sensitive and recognize when their patients need psychological support. However, when referred for therapy, many feel embarrassed and hardly ever show up for psychological consultation. Their partners or families may not encourage them to seek help because the problem it is not seen as a medical one. Doctors are understandably reluctant to prescribe psychiatric medications because of pregnancy or breast-feeding considerations.

Thus, a woman in such a situation suffers alone and remains isolated from her support system. She is expected to transcend all such adverse circumstances, and some do. Others don't have the emotional strengths to cope. Some have struggled with depression and anxiety all their lives. Moreover, even when they are seemingly coping with the excessive stress, they might still be constantly producing stress hormones and toxins and some will reach the baby in the womb.

Maternal stress during pregnancy is also found to cause of asymmetry in coordination of ears, fingers, feet, elbows, etc. As a result, I.Qs of such children are found to be lower. Maternal stress is also linked with imperfections in the developing nervous system which can lead to problems of perception, thinking, and memory.

All of us want happy children. Happy children grow out of happy babies. Happy babies are born to happy mothers. Therefore, partners, families and friends of expectant mothers should do their best to make an expectant mother happy and relaxed. If she is depressed, nervous, or tense, encourage her to seek help.

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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