Why we should be more concerned about maternal stress during pregnancy

Marie Poirot reports on a University of Edinburgh study which highlights the connection between stress during pregnancy and the development of the baby’s brain.

Image credit: Bird’s eye via Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Pregnancy is a time of immense change for the expecting mother. As we mostly see the positive aspects of this extraordinary event, many can be unaware that it can also bring stress and anxiety. These feelings are common during pregnancy, however too much stress might impact the development of the baby.

A study from the University of Edinburgh revealed a link between the stress experienced during pregnancy and the development of the foetus’s brain, drawing attention to the need to provide proper support and care for pregnant women’s mental health.

The team of researchers, led by Professor James Boardman from the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health, found a correlation between cortisol level in the mother and changes in the baby’s brain after birth.

High levels of cortisol in the mother was associated with changes in the development of the amygdala in the baby’s brain.

Cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone”, plays various roles in our metabolism. It is released when we are feeling stressed, and is also involved in the development of the foetus. In this study, it was used as a stress measurement tool: researchers measured the level of cortisol in the mothers’ hair as an indicator of their stress levels for the past three months. This is the first study of the sort using this method – stress level is usually assessed through questionnaires in such studies, a method that might be less objective.

Their babies underwent an MRI scan while asleep, which is a non-invasive procedure to scan their brains. The results revealed that high levels of cortisol in the mother was associated with changes in the development of the amygdala in the baby’s brain. The amygdala is a part of the brain involved in emotions and behaviours, especially fear. 

The limbic lobe is the part of the brain in which the amygdala is located
Image credit: OpenStax College via Wikimedia, (CC BY 3.0)

Due to its role in emotion and behaviour, researchers suspect that these changes in the amygdala could cause emotional difficulties as the child grows. However, as the children’s behaviour wasn’t studied here, further research tracking babies as they grow up is needed to confirm this hypothesis.

These findings emphasize the importance of proper mental care and support for the mother during pregnancy. According to Prof. James Boardman, these “ findings are a call to action to detect and support pregnant women who need extra help during pregnancy”. Indeed, stress and especially long-lasting stress during pregnancy can also induce other detrimental effects, such as premature delivery, and is also believed to affect the baby’s immune system. Furthermore, according to Public Health England, about 13 percent of women suffer from anxiety disorders during pregnancy and the first year after birth. If any woman can theoretically suffer from these issues during pregnancy, disparities exist: a stressful environment or existing traumas, as well as social factors, such as poverty, increase the risks.

This study raises awareness of the need to provide better, more consistent mental health care to expecting mothers

Studies show there is still work to do in the care of pregnant women’s mental health. A 2015 report from the Centre for Mental Health states that there are disparities in pregnant women’s access to mental health support: in almost half of the UK, expecting and new mothers have no access to specialist perinatal mental health care services. This remains the case even though it is known that proper mental health care during pregnancy can in most cases effectively help and relieve the future mother: according to Professor Rebecca Reynolds, who co-led the study, “psychological treatments are very successful at helping mothers and children”.

In addition to highlighting the real need to address this situation, this research could also provide a new detection tool for doctors and therapists. Measuring cortisol level could help identify women in need of mental health care during their pregnancy. As Professor Rebecca Reynolds declared, “we hope that our findings could guide therapies in future to help spot those who might be most in need of support.”

This study raises awareness of the need to provide better, more consistent mental health care to expecting mothers. Pregnancy can be both a wonderful and terrifying time for those that experience it. To give babies the best start in life, it is crucial that their mother gets the support they need.

Written by Marie Poirot and edited by Ailie McWhinnie.

Marie’s thoughts… I was very curious about the findings of this study. There are still many things we don’t know about the mother-baby connection, and the influence the prenatal environment has on the child in the future. Besides, despite some progress over the past years, we don’t talk enough about potential less positive aspects of pregnancy, which might only make the future mother unprepared to face them and less likely to seek help. Beyond the scientific findings, this kind of research raises awareness on issues we don’t hear enough about.

Marie is a former Science Communication and Public Engagement student with a background in cell and molecular biology. Find her on LinkedIn @Marie Poirot.

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