Mom's Stress May Affect A Baby's Brain Development, New Study Shows

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Pregnancy can be a stressful time for many. But new research suggests how important it is to take care of your mental health during the prenatal period. According to this just-released study, maternal stress can affect the baby's brain development during pregnancy.

The study, published in Biological Psychiatry, looked at the relationship between maternal stress and brain development in 251 premature babies.

"We found that in the moms that were more stressed during pregnancy and the period before birth, white matter was altered in the babies," said lead researcher and MRC doctoral researcher in perinatal imaging and health Alexandra Lautarescu from King's College London. (Altered and impaired development of white matter is associated with anxiety disorders.) In the study the mothers were asked to take a questionnaire about stressful events that might have happened during the pregnancy. These events ranged from everyday stressors (moving houses or taking an exam) to more severe events like experiencing bereavement, separation, or divorce. From there, the researchers calculated a score based on the amount and severity of the mom's stress, and that was related to the baby's brain—white matter, specifically. This is how they found the connection between prenatal stress and impaired white matter development.

"[Stress] is not diagnosed as often as it should be during pregnancy and we are trying to emphasize that maternal mental health during pregnancy can impact the baby's brain development, which may impact on their outcomes later in life. No one is asking these women about stress and hence they don't receive any support," says Lautarescu. 

It's a start to an important discussion: Pregnant women need access to resources that can help reduce stress. "We need to have some kind of support there for the moms who identify that they are stressed. If we try to help these women either during the pregnancy or in the early postnatal period with some sort of intervention, this will not only help the mother but improve both of their outcomes overall," says Lautarescu. They also note that future studies need to be done to see how the maternal stress affects the children later in life.

But, we obviously know that avoiding stress for nine-plus months is impossible—life happens, in ways big and small.

So the best takeaway, according to functional medicine gynecologist Wendie Trubow, M.D., (who was not part of this study), is to handle major life events—that are within your control—prior, and then just do the best you can. And when major stress comes up, reach out to others—professional, and otherwise—for emotional support.

"If you are planning to have a child, you should try your best to optimize your life before getting pregnant: Buy the house, do the construction, change jobs, and let things settle down," she says. "During, you can practice effective and regular self care: Eat a healthy balanced diet low in sugar and processed carbs, exercise regularly, meditate, get enough sleep. And please, make sure to get into communication with friends, family, or professionals who can help support you through this trying time."

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