Women with higher fluctuations were more likely to report that their babies often seemed angry, crying or fussing when left in a crib; showed distress when they were tired; and clung to a parent when introduced to an unfamiliar adult, the study said.
“We know that infants experiencing chronic stimulation of the stress response system (chronically elevated cortisol), or ‘toxic stress,’ without the buffer of a caring adult have impact on early brain development, immune system and epigenetics,” said Dr. Marian Earls, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Healthy Mental & Emotional Development, in an email. She was not involved in the study.
These children may have “poor self-control, poor peer relationships, school problems, and aggression,” as well as attachment disorders, behavior problems, and depression and other mood disorders, the statement said.
Gathering stress data in real time
Measuring the highs and lows of stress in real time during pregnancy allowed scientists to see a more comprehensive picture of the women’s levels of tension.
High fluctuations could mean that “individuals have more instability in their current life circumstances, or that those individuals might have a tendency to perceive their circumstances to be less stable or they have more difficulty regulating their emotions,” said lead study author Leigha MacNeill, research assistant professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
These frequent changes may have important implications for children’s emotional development, MacNeill said.
The next step in the study team’s research is to look at how a mother’s biology changes as her stress fluctuates, so researchers can learn more about how it affects the baby, she said.
Additionally, it’s normal to experience some stress during pregnancy, so more data is needed to determine what types and levels of stress impact the mother and her baby, MacNeil said.
The pandemic did not affect stress patterns
While the researchers did not intend to conduct this study during a pandemic, it was a happy accident because it allowed them to examine if stress levels were different in pregnant women before and during Covid-19.
“We found that participants reported similar levels of stress patterns regardless of whether their stress measurements were taken before or during the pandemic,” MacNeill said.
The study is limited, however, because most of the women were middle-to-upper class, partnered and well educated, which could have shielded them from much of the stress families felt during the pandemic, the authors say.
How you can reduce stress before and after pregnancy
It’s natural to feel stressed during pregnancy, but there are strategies to keep it from negatively affecting women and their babies.
Women should speak with their gynecologist to ensure physical activity is safe during pregnancy, Mayo Clinic said.
Positive, as well as negative, life events can mold a child’s future, the AAP stated, adding that studies have shown that positive experiences like book reading with “engaged, responsive caregivers,” age-appropriate play with other children, and quality day care and preschool education “are associated with positive impacts on learning, behavior, and health.”