Does stress hurt unborn children?

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"There's no time when parental stress doesn't affect a child, but it seems to be particularly damaging when stress occurs during pregnancy. And it may affect a child's developing brain all the way to the genes," (Walton, 2011). 

Very young children (birth to 3 years) have a limited capability to communicate with adults. This is especially cause for concern during stressful times in the family.  

One may think that because a child is so young, that the hurt and confusion of a stressful event, like divorce, or even just the stress of changing a routine, may not really affect the child on an emotional or developmental level. Research has shown that even infants can be affected by the stress and/ or conflict going on in the home. In fact, continued (chronic) stress on a pregnant woman can have a strong impact on her unborn child, via stress hormones present in the mothers' body. Long term issues from this are still being studied but there have been links to ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

Key Points

- Prenatal stress is associated with increased risk for a range of neurodevelopmental, behavioral and cognitive changes in the child. 

- This may have been of adaptive value for our ancestors, to keep us safe from predators, but leads to psychopathology in our modern society.

- If a mother is stressed or anxious while pregnant her child is more likely to show a range of symptoms such as those of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, aggression or anxiety. (Glover, 2011)

- Postnatal mother mood/affect can help ease or make worse these prenatal issues.

- Not all children are affected in the same way and some are not affected at all. The child's genes and environment play a role.

Remember the Good News!

Even if a woman is chronically stressed during pregnancy, the effects on the child may be eased or made worse, by the parents' ability to cope with stress during the postnatal period. So, even if a woman was highly stressed during pregnancy, the child will benefit from a calm and low-stress environment, after birth. 

What can we do to prevent stress during these developmental stages? 

Limiting stress and conflict is ideal however this is not always possible. Below are some ways to de-stress when there is no way to avoid it:

- Exercise

- Think positive thoughts

- Create balance between work and family

- Build a support system

- Be a good communicator

- Break the cycle of tension

The above tips were provided by UT Extension Family and Consumer Sciences professor and Community Health Educator, Bobbi Clarke, PhD, RD, in the publication "Ways to Stress Less", and is available online or by contacting your County UT Extension Office.

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