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Pregnant women who experience stress fluctuations give birth to children with this

Previous studies have shown how stress can affect unborn children but this is the first to examine the effect on the ebb and flow of feeling stress at different times.

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pregnant woman is sitting in living room and stressed another hand holding her stomach
(Blue Titan via Shutterstock)

By Danny Halpin via SWNS

Pregnant women who experience wide fluctuations in stress give birth to children who can suffer from fear, sadness and distress, a new study has found.

The researchers said their work shows how these fluctuations, also known as lability, affect children’s development before they are even born.

Previous studies have shown how stress can affect unborn children but this is the first to examine the effect on the ebb and flow of feeling stress at different times.

“Research often examines stress as a static, unchanging construct – one that is either high or low, present or absent – but most of us have a lot of ebbs and flows in our stress depending on what is going on around us," said Dr. Leigha MacNeill of Northwestern University and lead author of the study.

“That variability is inherent in our daily lives, so this lability is capturing an important aspect of stress and offers insight into how to measure stress going forward.

“This is of particular importance as we work to closely capture the maternal-fetal environment as it relates to how babies develop over time.”

For example, MacNeill explained, one mother who has consistent levels of stress over pregnancy and another mother who moves between very low and very high levels of stress over pregnancy may in the end have a similar average level of stress across that time, but that average may not best capture meaningful differences in what the fetus is exposed to.

“There may be something about that gestational experience, when a mother moves between extremes, that shapes the child’s disposition toward negative emotions," she said.

“That kind of stress pattern could reflect instability in daily life experiences, unpredictable external stressors or instability in how a mother perceives her lived experiences, which may have important implications for children’s emotional development.”

She also said that having a better understanding of the nature of stress during pregnancy may help to prevent its negative effects.

It could lead to helping mothers remain consistently calm before or at the onset of pregnancy, especially when experiencing uncontrollable life events.

Since most expecting parents receive some form of prenatal care, MacNeill said, stress measures and ideally management, could be incorporated into those visits.

Publishing their work in the journal Infancy, the researchers sent participants a series of questionnaires.

Although they didn’t set out to test pandemic-related stress, they used its arrival as part of the study, with some participants completing questionnaires before the pandemic began, some before and during and some completely during.

“We asked about general stress, not pandemic-related stress. But we took advantage of the occurrence of the pandemic during the course of the study to see if we could detect its impact on mothers’ experiences," MacNeill said.

“We found that mothers’ stress patterns were unrelated to the timing of the pandemic.

"Mothers reported similar levels of stress regardless of whether their stress measurements occurred before or during the pandemic.”

The study authors measured pregnant individuals’ stress up to four times a day for 14 weeks using questions sent to the participants’ phones.

They identified three types of stress: stress at the first assessment (baseline), average or typical levels of stress across the 14-week period, and the amount a person changed in their stress from one time to the next across the 14-week period (lability).

The authors measured infants’ negative emotions via a temperament questionnaire given to mothers when their infants were three months old.

Mothers answered questions about their child’s sadness, distress to limitations and fearfulness (for example how much they clung to their parent when introduced to an unfamiliar adult).

This formed an overall negative affect average score.

Because studying stress fluctuations in pregnancy is a relatively new idea, the authors said that more research is needed before a clear understanding can emerge of how stress impacts developing fetuses.

For instance, more research in larger, more diverse samples are needed to find out if these patterns hold true for families from different backgrounds and with varying levels of support.

“This is a really early index (three months), so we’d want to see how consistent their negative affect levels are in the first year of life," MacNeill said.

“Parents are the ones who can soothe their infants and be really responsive to their needs, and as infants grow, there are things parents can do to help the child navigate situations and learn to regulate and cope with their negative emotions.”

“This study illustrates that links between parent and child are based on genes as well as experiences, even before birth," said Dr .Matthew Davis of the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, who was not directly involved in the study.

“One of the most important approaches to having a less distressed child is to support expectant parents and minimize their stress during pregnancy.

“That can be accomplished through clinical care, social supports and policies that are family- and pregnancy-friendly."

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