The amount of stress that is experienced by pregnant women can affect children later in life, study finds.
A study conducted by researchers from the University of Notre Dame, Australia has found that stress during pregnancy can have effects on offspring, well into adolescence. The researchers assessed both timing, and number of stressful events that occurred during pregnancy, in a group of almost 3 000 pregnant women from the Western Australian Pregnancy Cohort (Raine) Study. The women reported on stressful events that occurred during their pregnancy including, pregnancy problems, death of a close relative or friend, separation/divorce, marital problems, job loss, money problems, or residential move. The children were then followed up at 10-year, 14-year, and 17-year time points to determine whether there were any negative effects on long-term motor development.
The study reported that higher amounts of stressful events during pregnancy (3 or more) were associated with a lower motor competence in the children, when compared with children whose mothers experienced a lower number of stressful events during pregnancy (less than 2). The researchers suggest that the data points to a cumulative effect of stress on fetal motor development. Furthermore, the effects appeared to become more evident over time, likely due to the fact that parts of the brain involved in movement and motor functioning continue to develop into adolescence.
When differentiating between stresses occurring in early versus late pregnancy, the researchers found that stress during late pregnancy (34 weeks) had a greater impact on motor development when compared with stress occurring during early pregnancy (18 weeks). The researchers suggest this may be due to effects of maternal stress on the fetus’ cerebellar cortex, which develops later during pregnancy. This part of the brain is involved in control of movement and posture, in addition to learning of motor skills.
The researchers conclude that stress during pregnancy has negative effects on long-term motor development, suggesting an important role for emotional care of pregnant women in an effort to improve health of both mother and baby.
Grace, T, Bulsara, M, Robinson, M, Hands, B. “The Impact of Maternal Gestational Stress on Motor Development in Late Childhood and Adolescence: A Longitudinal Study” Child Development Article first published online: 14 OCT 2015
Written by Deborah Tallarigo, PhD