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German study: stress in pregnancy affects babies for life

Contributed by admin on July 22 at 6:02 a.m.

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Many parents have wondered how stress in pregnancy affects their babies later in life. According to a new study from the University of Konstanz in Germany and published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, being exposed to stress in utero matters. In fact, researchers say, children of mothers who experienced extremely high levels of stress while they were expecting are likely to suffer lifelong emotional consequences.
The study, led by Dr Helen Gunter, involved 25 mothers who were victims of domestic abuse during pregnancy and their offspring. The children were monitored from age nine through 19, and researchers focused on the behavior of a specific “stress gene” called glucocorticoid receptor. The results were clear – the glucocorticoid receptor of children whose mothers were under a lot of stress while they were in the womb was decidedly less active.
These findings give a new insight into the affects of stress. It had already been clear for a while that women who are trying to get pregnant have a reduced chance of conceiving while exposed to high levels of stress, but the consequences of experiencing traumatic events during pregnancy were very much unknown. Still, it is important to note that this study had a very small number of participants, and that further research is warranted. Dr Helen Gunter pointed out: “We did not look at the everyday stresses of working or having a family. This study is very specific to abuse.”
Thomas Elbert, one of the lead researchers, said that “it would appear that babies who get signals from their mum that they are being born into a dangerous world are faster responders”. He added that babies who were already used to stress developed a lower threshold for it. It would indeed seem logical that this type of response is a normal survival mechanism that enables individuals who are likely part of a high-stress environment to react more quickly to danger. However, the study also found that these children, besides having a faster hormonal and emotional reaction to stress, had a higher chance of being impulsive and struggling emotionally.
Gunter elaborated: “[Exposure to stress in utero] changes the way that people respond to stress and they may have a reduced ability to respond to stress.Past studies have shown that children who have abused parents are more prone to depression later in life.” But she also acknowledged the shortcomings of the study, pointing out that she and her colleagues relied on the memories of study subjects a decade or more following events during their pregnancies to collect data. In addition, other factors like stress during early childhood should also be taken into account.
And while this study appears to show a link between abusive relationships during pregnancy and emotional problems later in life, it doesn’t prove that a person’s brain changes because of traumatic circumstances in the womb – the old “correlation does not equal causation” holds true.

Olivia writes about female health, fertility, and pregnancy signs at Trying To Conceive.

 German study: stress in pregnancy affects babies for life

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