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Here’s why it’s so important to help pregnant women stay calm

The growing evidence underscores the importance of mental health support for pregnant women.

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By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

Children of women who were stressed in pregnancy are more likely to have behavioral problems, according to new research from Children's National Hospital, Washington DC.

Maternal anxiety or depression changes the development of a baby's brain in the womb, the study found.

Young thai pregnant woman under stress in bed
The DC team tracked 97 pregnant women and their infants. (Perfect Angle Images/Shutterstock)

It reduced cognitive function at 18 months old and led to emotional issues such as withdrawing from friends and family.

The findings add to evidence that moms-to-be must be offered access to mental health support.

Dr. Catherine Limperopoulos, of the Children's National Hospital, Washington DC and a senior author of the study, said: "By identifying the pregnant women with elevated levels of psychological distress, clinicians could recognize those babies who are at risk for later neurodevelopmental impairment and might benefit from early, targeted interventions."

The team tracked 97 pregnant women and their infants. Psychological distress after the baby was born also influenced relationships and the child's thoughts.

The study is the first to shed light on the phenomenon. In the womb, the researchers observed alterations in an important marker of brain anatomy, known as sulcal depth.

Sulcal is a depression or groove in the cerebral cortex of the brain.

Sad woman crying while sitting on bed in her bedroom. Stressed pregnant woman or mother problems.
(MorphoBio/Shutterstock)

There were also differences in the volume of the hippocampus that could explain the neurodevelopment issues seen after birth.

Once they grow into toddlers, these children may experience persistent social-emotional problems and have difficulty establishing positive relationships with others, including their mothers.

Stress is the most common complication. It affects a quarter of pregnant women - regardless of socioeconomic status.

But the link between altered foetal brain development, prenatal maternal psychological distress and long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes remain unknown.

Studying it in the womb poses challenges due to foetal and maternal movements, imaging technology, signal-to-noise ratio issues and changes in brain growth.

All pregnant participants were healthy, most had some level of education and were employed.

To quantify prenatal stress levels, anxiety and depression, the researchers used validated self-reported questionnaires.

Brain development and essential chemicals were measured and quantified using 3D reconstructed images derived from MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans.

At 18 months old, neurodevelopment was measured using validated scales and assessments.

The study builds upon previous work from the Developing Brain Institute lab led by Dr. Limperopoulos.

Their team first discovered that anxiety in pregnant women appears to affect the brain development of their babies.

Her team also found maternal mental health, even for affluent women, alters the structure and biochemistry of the developing foetal brain.

Dr Limperopoulos said: "We are looking at shifting the health care paradigm and adopting these changes more broadly to better support moms.

"What is clear is early interventions could help moms reduce their stress, which can positively impact their symptoms and thereby their baby long after birth."

To further confirm the results future studies with a larger sample size that reflect more regions and populations are needed, she added.

A recent study of 251 British mothers also suggested stress in pregnancy change babies' brains, putting them at risk of anxiety.

Scans showed white matter - 'tracts' made of fibres which send messages between the different parts of the brain - developed differently.

Such changes have previously been linked to anxiety, autism, OCD and other mood disorders in children and adults.

The King's College London team said one possible reason is stress hormones, such as cortisol, reach the baby in the womb through the placenta.

The findings were published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

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