Maternal Stress May Lead to Faster Ageing In Children And Preterm Births: Study

Ally Villar
·4-min read

Dealing with stress, whether from work or other house responsibilities, is already hard enough to go through on a regular basis. Add on the physiological complications that come with being pregnant, it’s only normal for any mum-to-be to feel stressed to the brim of their changing body. 

Since it is a regular occurrence during pregnancy, there are many ways suggested by experts for mums to relax and de-stress. It is especially important now that researchers have found just how much maternal stress could affect a mother’s child. 

Two studies from UCLA show just how too much stress before and during pregnancy could have troubling influences on the baby’s growth. 

stress in pregnancy effects on baby
stress in pregnancy effects on baby

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Mother’s Stress Linked To Fast Ageing Of Child

A new study from the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology suggested that a mother’s stress before giving birth could accelerate her baby’s biological ageing. Researchers found that this could be due to the connection between maternal stress and a baby’s telomere lengths, which are the small pieces of DNA at the ends of chromosomes acting as protective caps.

Sounds a bit difficult but shortened telomere lengths are an important part of this study as it has previously been found to be linked to high risks of cancers, critical diseases and early deaths.

In order to find out why some people age fast than others, researchers conducted a study following 111 mothers and their children starting from preconception all the way to early childhood. 

When the kids turned 3 to 5 years old, researchers collected cell samples from inside their cheeks to extract their DNA, including telomeres. With this, they were able to compare the childhood telomere length along with the stress measurements that were taken while the children were in utero. 

The results showed that kids exposed to maternal stress while in utero had shorter telomere length, therefore, could be at a higher chance of ageing faster than other people. 

The links between maternal stress and cellular ageing were explained by Judith Carroll, the lead author of the study, as she elaborated on their hypotheses saying “We know that stress can activate inflammation and metabolic activity, both of which, in high amounts, can contribute to damage to DNA. Telomeres are vulnerable to damage and, if unrepaired before cell division, they can become shortened by this damage. During in utero development, we know there is rapid cell replication, and we suspect there is increased vulnerability to damage during this time.” 

stress in pregnancy effects on baby
stress in pregnancy effects on baby

Image Source: iStock

Pregnancy Stress May Also Affect Preterm Birth

The same research group also found that women who experienced high levels of stress before conception were more likely to have preterm labour. 

The study published in the journal, Annals of Behavioural Medicine, involved interviews among 360 mothers with largely low-income, racially diverse areas and most of which lived near or below poverty level. Researchers were then able to obtain information on the women’s general stress levels as well as their stress from their environment which includes “financial worries, job loss, a lack of food, chronic relationship troubles, parenting challenges, interpersonal violence and discrimination.”

Their findings showed that women who experienced the lowest or highest levels of environmental stress had the shortest pregnancies. Meanwhile, women who only had moderate amounts of stress before conception got to have longer pregnancies.

“Women exposed to moderate stressors in their environment may have developed coping strategies that serve them well both before and during pregnancy, while exposure to more severe stress challenges even women who normally cope very effectively,” said Nicole Mahrer, the lead author of this study. 

Researchers also took note that once women manage to find effective coping strategies in order to avoid high levels of stress may help prepare the developing fetus for the environment to come. 

Experts have also said that this could raise awareness in the need for more resources and support programmes for preconception health and well-being. 

“An important takeaway from this work is that prenatal and preconception maternal health and well-being are critically important for the health of the infant,” Carroll added. “If we as a society can make changes to help give pregnant women the resources they need and provide them with a safe and supportive environment before and during pregnancy, we may have a significant impact on the health of their children.”


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