Health & Fitness

Stressful pregnancy impairs brain development in babies


A mother’s poor mental health may also lead to altered early behaviour in children such as more frequent crying. FILE PHOTO | NMG

During pregnancy, mothers go through various challenges that the physical and emotional changes they experience cause.

The uncertainty about the success of pregnancy as well as complications that may arise also put a lot of strain on women.

“Sometimes you feel alone and overwhelmed, worrying about one thing or another and not knowing what to do,” says Susan Njoki, a mother of one.

She notes that two years ago while expecting her daughter, she often felt stressed.

“I tried to ignore it because I assumed this was normal in pregnancy. But my doctor picked up on it, during the regular check-up sessions and linked me to a counselling psychologist who helped me a lot.”

Njoki is lucky to have received support for her distress. Just like her, many women often downplay stress associated with pregnancy by viewing it as a part of motherhood.

Unknown to them, the stress poses health risks to not only mothers but also the unborn children they are carrying.

A new study published in the Biological Psychiatry Journal found that maternal stress before and during pregnancy could affect a baby’s brain development.

During the study, researchers from King’s College London looked at the relationship between maternal stress and brain development in 251 premature babies.

To realise this goal, they asked mothers to complete a questionnaire, which asked them about their experiences of stressful events during and after pregnancy.

The responses ranged from everyday stress such as moving house or taking an exam, to more severe stressors like bereavement, separation or divorce.

A score of severity of stress was calculated based on how many stressors the women experienced, as well as how severe they were.

To gauge the impact of the stressors on their offspring, the researchers used a medical technology called diffusion tensor imaging.

The technique was specifically developed to look at the structure of a part of the brain known as white matter tract.

This area contains nerves that link various parts of the brain to one another and the spinal cord. It is responsible for the proper functioning of the brain and mind.

Indeed, previous evidence in adults suffering from mental conditions such as anxiety disorders has shown that changes in the brains white matter tract may be a contributor to the ailments.


Similarly, the King’s College London researchers found that babies whose mothers experienced more stress in the prenatal period suffered from impaired development of the white matter tract.

“We found that in mums that were more stressed during pregnancy and the period before birth, the white matter was altered in the babies,” said Alexandra Lautarescu, the lead author of the study from King’s College London.

The researchers noted that the study highlights the importance of providing support for expectant mothers since previous studies have shown that interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help mitigate adverse outcomes in the baby.

Health experts define CBT a type of psychological ‘talk’ therapy in which negative patterns of thought about the self and the world are challenged.

This helps people going through stress to understand what is happening to them and find ways of addressing the challenge to avert adverse health effects or behaviours.

The therapy, conducted through various counselling sessions, enables affected individuals to become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking, hence empowering them to view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them more effectively.

To effectively manage stress during pregnancy, the study authors noted that clinicians — doctors, nurses or clinical officers — have an important role to play when speaking with expectant mothers.


They state that while questions are usually asked about depressive symptoms among pregnant women, few questions are asked about general stress and anxiety.

Consequently, women who deal with stressful life events during pregnancy are not often picked up by their doctors or other healthcare providers.

“Stress is not diagnosed as often as it should be during pregnancy. So, we are trying to emphasise that maternal mental health during pregnancy can impact the baby’s brain development, which may impact on their outcomes later in life,” said Alexandra Lautarescu. “No one is asking these women about stress and hence they don’t receive any support.”

According to her, health workers providing antenatal care need to be aware that it is important to think about the stress that may be affecting pregnant mums that they attend to.

Thereafter, those exhibiting stress symptoms should receive adequate support without unnecessary delays.

“If we try to help these women either during the pregnancy or in the early postnatal period with some sort of intervention, this will not only help the mother but may also prevent impaired brain development in the baby and improve their overall outcomes.”

Stress in pregnant women has also been linked to delivery complications, stillbirths or babies born with low birth weight.

A mother’s poor mental health may also lead to altered early behaviour in children such as more frequent crying.