Fertility and pregnancy * Mental wellbeing

Pregnancy stress has long term effects on baby

Mother s stress during pregnancy may have long lasting effect on baby Child less able to cope later

High levels of stress during pregnancy may have a long term effect on the child.

Researchers from Konstanz University in Germany found that severe maternal stress during pregnancy can lead to an alteration in the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) gene in children, and affect their ability to cope with stress later in life.

The gene plays an important role in how the body responds to stress, and has already been linked to mental illness and behavioural problems.

The researchers looked at the gene in 25 mothers and their children, now aged between 10 and 19. The mothers were victims of domestic abuse.

They found that children born to mothers who experienced domestic abuse when pregnant had a genetic alteration in the GR gene, not seen in other children of the same age.

The alteration, which only happens when the baby is in the womb, may help explain how maternal stress can continue to affect the child later on in life.

However, the scientists pointed out that the study only looked at pregnant women who suffered extreme stress caused by violent partners, and not the everyday type of stress brought on by work and family.

Dr Carmine Pariante, of the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College London, said: "This paper confirms that the early foundation years start at minus nine months.

"We have known for some time that maternal stress and depression during pregnancy induce a unique response in the offspring, by affecting children’s behaviour well into adolescence and the children's ability to modulate their own stress response.

"This study shows that the glucocorticoid receptor, that is, the receptor for stress hormones, is subject to a key biological change that contributes to the organisation of this offspring response.

"This confirms that pregnancy is uniquely sensitive to a challenging maternal psychosocial environment – much more than, for example, after the baby is born.

"As we and others have been advocating, addressing maternal stress and depression in pregnancy is a clinically and socially important strategy."

This article was published on Wed 20 July 2011

Image © Jared Hudson - Fotolia.com

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