Stressed expectant parents equals stressed newborn. That’s the takeaway from a new study.
A recent study on the effects of parental stress on newborn development has concluded that while a parent’s stress can have a negative effect on a newborn’s motor and socio-emotional development, during pregnancy a woman’s low or moderate amount of stress can actually have a positive effect on postnatal motor development.
Researchers conducted interviews with parents in a number of cities within the United States and Canada to assess stress levels both before the baby’s birth and then again one year after birth and correlated the results with child development evaluations conducted at the child’s one year mark.
The research provided for three main conclusions, first, that a mother’s prenatal stress can have a positive effect on motor development -the hypothesis here being that the stress causes the release of the stress response hormone cortisol into the mother’s (and the fetus’) bloodstream.
Cortisol is known to be essential to normal brain development and studies have shown that elevated cortisol during the last trimester of pregnancy is related to accelerated child development over the first 12 months.
Secondly, and contrarily, a mother’s stress after the baby is born was found to have a negative impact on her newborn’s motor development. This result jibes with other research which has shown that distressed mothers are more likely to provide a less stimulating environment for their babies, resulting in less opportunity for babies to exercise their motor skills and hence the potential for impact on motor development.
The third correlation was that a father’s postnatal stress had a negative effect on the newborn’s socio-emotional development. Developmental psychologists suggest that father-child play is closer to a form of social interaction than is the more tightly knit bond of mother-child and thus when a father’s stress negatively impacts his ability to play and interact with his child, the developmental effects are felt differently than those of a mother’s stress, viz., on the social competence and emotional curves of the child’s development.
“Being a parent is stressful and many factors such as high work load, low social support, negative life events, or concerns about child care-taking may increase levels of parenting stress,” say the study’s authors. “Early identification of any negative effects should allow health care providers to optimize support and implement family intervention programs allowing children to develop to their full potential.”
The authors caution that prenatal stress should not be seen as a good thing in all cases. In fact, too much stress during pregnancy has been associated with serious negative outcomes such as prematurity, low birth weight, a reduction in childhood IQ and increased risk of mood and attention disorders.
Statistics Canada reports that an estimated 25 per cent of women and 21 per cent of men between the ages of 18 and 34 suffer from intense daily stress, which is known to be a risk factor for health problems such as heart disease, bowel disease and mental illness and can have negative impacts on the body’s immune system. Stress is also a known risk factor for alcohol and substance abuse.
The study was published this month in the journal Archives of Women’s Mental Health.