A new study by Columbia University Irving Medical Centre shows that “Stress during pregnancy may affect baby’s sex, risk of preterm birth,” Released on October 15th, 2019, the study was published online in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  Since stress depends to a great extent on social support by friends and family, this was considered as the most differentiating factor in affecting a woman’s mental health during pregnancy.

Key Takeaways:

  • It is now becoming well established that maternal stress during pregnancy can affect fetal and child development as well as birth outcomes.
  • Study leader Catherine Monk along with her colleagues examined 27 indicators of psychosocial, physical, and lifestyle stress collected from questionnaires, diaries, and daily physical assessments of 187 otherwise healthy pregnant women, ages 18 to 45.
  • Out of the women assessed, 17 percent were psychologically stressed, 16 percent were physically stressed and the majority were healthy.
  • The study also showed that stress can also affect the sex of a child as pregnant women experiencing physical and psychological stress are less likely to have a boy. 

Physically stressed mothers, with higher blood pressure and caloric intake, were more likely to give birth prematurely than unstressed mothers.

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Impacts Of Stress On Pregnant Women

According to the study, stress has a number of effects on pregnant women. It observed the following negative impacts of stress on pregnant women:

  • Physically stressed mothers, with higher blood pressure and caloric intake, were more likely to give birth prematurely than unstressed mothers.
  • Among physically stressed mothers, foetuses had reduced heart rate-movement coupling — an indicator of slower central nervous system development as compared with unstressed mothers.
  • Psychologically stressed mothers had more birth complications than physically stressed mothers.

Study leader Catherine Monk, Ph.D., professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and director of Women’s Mental Health in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center says, “The stress in women is likely of long-standing nature; studies have shown that males are more vulnerable to adverse prenatal environments, suggesting that highly stressed women may be less likely to give birth to a male due to the loss of prior male pregnancies, often without even knowing they were pregnant.”

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“We know from animal studies that exposure to high levels of stress can raise levels of stress hormones like cortisol in the uterus, which in turn can affect the fetus”

Womb Is An Influential First Home

“The womb is an influential first home, as important as the one a child is raised in, if not more so,” according to Monk. However, the way in which a mother’s mental state might specifically affect the foetus was no studied in the study.  “We know from animal studies that exposure to high levels of stress can raise levels of stress hormones like cortisol in the uterus, which in turn can affect the fetus,” says Monk. “Stress can also affect the mother’s immune system, leading to changes that affect neurological and behavioural development in the foetus. What’s clear from our study is that maternal mental health matters, not only for the mother but also for her future child.”

Picture Credit: The Telegraph

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