The number of stressful events a mother experiences during pregnancy appears to be linked to an increased risk of childhood behavior problems.
Australian researchers believe the findings call for increased attention to providing community support for pregnant women experiencing stressful events.
Stressful events can include financial and relationship difficulties, a complex pregnancy, job loss and issues with other children. Major life stressors could also include a death in the family or other catastrophic events.
Lead author Monique Robinson, Ph.D., said this study is unique as the timing, amount and kinds of events that lead to poorer outcomes were analyzed. “What we have found is that it is the overall number of stresses that is most related to child behavior outcomes,” she said.
“Two or fewer stresses during pregnancy are not associated with poor child behavioral development, but as the number of stresses increase to three or more, then the risks of more difficult child behavior increase.”
According to the researchers, the number of stressful events was more important than the actual type of stress experienced. Interestingly, the timing of the stressful events, whether early or late in the pregnancy, did not appear to be associated with a specific risk.
Researchers reviewed a long-term cohort study, which recruited nearly 3,000 pregnant women and recorded life stress events experienced at 18 and 34 weeks of pregnancy, as well as collecting sociodemographic data.
The mother’s experience of life stress events and child behavioral assessments were also recorded when the children were followed-up ages 2, 5, 8, 10, and 14 years using a questionnaire called the Child Behavior Checklist.
The percentage of women with more than two stress events was 37.2%, while the percentage with six or more was 7.6%.
Robinson said the study should not make pregnant women stress further about the stress in their lives.
“These types of analyses look at overall population risk, and of course individuals can have very differing responses,” she said. “Regardless of exposure to stress in the womb, a nurturing environment after birth can provide the child with enormous potential to change their course of development. This is known as ‘developmental plasticity,’ which means that the brain can adapt and change as the child grows with a positive environment.”
Robinson said the important message is how a community supports pregnant women.
“If we think about people who lead stressful lives, they are most often linked with socioeconomic disadvantage. This research shows we should be targeting these women with support programs to ensure the stress does not negatively affect the unborn child,” she said.
Future research will seek to understand the mechanisms behind how stress in pregnancy affects the developing baby, including the impact of maternal stress hormones, attachment and parenting issues and socioeconomic factors.
Source: Research Australia