Stress such as bereavement during pregnancy can harm child's health for years
01:42 GMT, 31 July 2012
A stressful pregnancy could damage the unborn child’s health for years to come, doctors have warned.
A study of English mothers-to-be found that going through a major upheaval, such as a bereavement or separation, dramatically raised the odds of their baby suffering ill health by the age of four.
The link with chronic conditions was particularly strong, with two bouts of severe stress in pregnancy raising the odds five-fold.
The researchers, from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, said it was crucial that pregnant women are supported through stressful events.
A study of mothers-to-be found that experiencing a bereavement or separation raised the odds of their baby suffering ill health by the age of four
More than 150 mothers-to-be were asked early in their pregnancy and again just a few weeks before giving birth about any stressful events affecting them, such as a family bereavement, separation, sudden unemployment and a difficult pregnancy.
Four years later, the women were interviewed about their children’s health, including any illnesses that had led to them visiting their doctor or being admitted to hospital.
This revealed a clear link with stress in pregnancy and ill health, with trauma early in pregnancy particularly likely to be linked to asthma or infections such as tummy bugs, the British Association for Psychopharmacology’s annual conference heard.
With problems in the mother’s life post-birth not having an impact, researchers believe the health of the baby in the womb is the key factor.
Possible reasons include changes in the mother’s hormones or immune system affecting the development of the child’s immune defences.
Researcher Jasmin Wertz said the finding ‘suggests the stress experienced during pregnancy induces biological changes in the unborn child that render it susceptible to the development of illness later in life’.
Her supervisor, psychiatrist Carmine Pariante, said: ‘We often talk about the concept of the foundation years, about the first two years of life being really important.
‘This is true, but it is crucial that the foundation years start at minus six months.’
With the study also showing high levels of depression among the stressed-out mothers-to-be, Dr Pariante said it was important pregnant women got the support they needed. He said: ‘Everybody expects you to be happy because you are pregnant – it’s very, very difficult to go and say you are depressed. But a pregnant woman who is depressed actually attracts a lot of empathy and sympathy.’
He added that while many doctors believed anti-depressants should be avoided wherever possible in pregnancy, the benefits to the unborn child’s later health outweighed the risks of rare side-effects such as birth defects.
Previous research has linked stress in the womb with lowering the unborn child’s IQ and raising the odds of hyperactivity, emotional problems and disobedience.