Motherly stress and the unborn baby

BBC News has a report on a recent conference presentation by Prof Vivette Glover suggesting that mother’s stress can affect the brain development of an unborn child.

If you are pregnant, don’t panic, the effect has only been found for quite intense stresses, but these do seem to increase the chances of the child developing behavioural problems later in life.

Actually, the idea that motherly stress could affect the unborn child’s chance of developing mental illness is not new.

One of the earliest reports on this was a paper from 1978 who looked at mothers affected by the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939, later to become known as the Winter War.

Researchers tracked down mothers who were pregnant when their partners were killed in the conflict, and compared them to mothers who were also pregnant at the time of the war, but whose partners were not killed in the fighting.

They found that children born to mothers whose partners were killed were more likely to develop schizophrenia later in life than the children born to mothers with partners who survived, suggesting that the stress of grief affected the child’s neurodevelopment.

This is thought to be due, at least in part, to the effect of stress-related hormone cortisol from the mother affecting the development of the foetus’ nervous system.

Interestingly, a similar increase in cases has also been found for children born to women who lived through physically and psychologically stressful famines – one in China and one in Holland.

It is well known that birth complications can lead to a slight increase risk for schizophrenia later in life, probably because of the effect on the brain.

It is fascinating to think that the mother’s experiences can influence the development of the unborn child’s brain, however indirectly it might occur.

Link to BBC News story on conference presentation.

One thought on “Motherly stress and the unborn baby”

  1. What’s most interesting to me about this is that many people a hundred or more years ago believed that if a pregnant woman was frightened by a horse, her child would be born with the characteristics of a horse. This was the ‘official’ tale told by the handler of the Elephant Man, who assured his audiences that the EM looked like he did because his mother had been frightened by an elephant before he was born. Turns out that, while a child’s physical characteristics are probably not strongly influenced by a mother’s traumas, its mental characteristics might be.

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