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Pregnancy stress harms baby's brain, study finds

A recent American study states that the cognitive development of the unborn child could be impaired if the mother suffers from increased levels of stress and anxiety. Any psychological distress during pregnancy could indeed be harmful to the brain of the fetus.

A link demonstrated for the first time

During pregnancy, the risks for the fetus are very numerous and new discoveries are quite frequent. A 2020 study had, for example, shown that caffeine could impact the future child during pregnancy, even in small quantities. A publication in the journal JAMA Network of April 29, 2022 claims that significant stress in the mother can impact the brain of the fetus. This work is not the first of its kind, but on the other hand, it is the first time that researchers have demonstrated a link between psychological distress and brain damage of the child.

According to the study, about a quarter of pregnant women experience symptoms of stress or anxiety . This is the most common problem during pregnancy. Moreover, even women with good health and good socio-economic status are also at risk. For child neural development specialist Catherine Limperopoulos, intervening early enough would, however, help mothers reduce their stress and therefore the risks for the child.

Pregnancy stress harms baby s brain, study finds

Persistent neurodevelopmental effects

As part of this work, scientists at the Children's National Hospital in Washington (USA) carried out measurements of psychological distress between 24 and 40 weeks in 97 mothers . After birth and at the age of 18 months, each baby took a neurodevelopmental test. According to the results, the stress caused changes in the brain of the fetus that caused certain developmental problems. These problems observed in children after birth relate in particular to self-regulation, socio-emotional dispositions and the ability to establish and maintain positive social relationships.

“Changes in brain development at critical times during pregnancy may have lingering neurodevelopmental effects as these babies grow. Pregnancy is a delicate balancing act and many factors can upset this critical balance, including maternal stress." , said Catherine Limperopoulos.

Finally, the researchers also observed a decrease in cognitive performance infant due to maternal stress before birth. Nevertheless, it fortunately does not reach the level of seriousness of a mental disorder.