have established that prenatal stress in the form of life and emotional stress
to the mother during pregnancy can have a lasting negative impact on the
behavior and biology of the offspring. The children of such mothers have an
increased risk of malformations, asthma, and mental and behavioral disorders.
So much so that, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the World Health
Organization (WHO) has recommended that the role of maternal stress during
pregnancy should be given high research priority.
In view of this,
Clinical psychologist Marion Tegethoff and colleagues conducted a study to
determine whether stress during pregnancy could be a risk factor for various
child diseases in the offspring.
The study was
based on data from the Danish National Birth Cohort. The information on
maternal stress was gathered from a telephone interview taken around 30 weeks
of gestation. And information on children's diseases was derived from the
Danish National Hospital Register. Complete information on maternal stress
during and after pregnancy as well as the data on diagnoses was available for
66,203 (99 percent) of the eligible mother-child pairs that participated in all
of the relevant interviews.
The results were
• There was an increased risk of mental disorders during the first 2.5
years of life in children of mothers reporting high life stress during
pregnancy compared with mothers reporting low life stress.
• Maternal life stress during pregnancy was also associated with an
increased risk in the diseases of the eye, ear, respiratory system, digestive
system, skin, musculoskeletal system and genitourinary system in children.
• Maternal life stress during pregnancy was again associated with an
increased risk of congenital malformations in offspring.
• Maternal emotional stress during pregnancy was associated with an
increased risk for the first diagnosis of infectious and parasitic diseases.
• There was a decreased risk for the first diagnosis of endocrine and
metabolic disorders, diseases of the eye, and the circulatory system up to 3
years of age in children whose mothers were emotionally stressed during
pregnancy. However, the researchers felt that 'it was too early to conclude
whether common forms of maternal emotional stress during pregnancy have the
potential to protect certain organ systems against disease'.
did not exclude the possibility of associations between the stress-related
changes in lifestyle or health related factors during pregnancy and child
There is also a
direct relationship between nutrition during pregnancy and a range of offspring
consumption during pregnancy has been associated with birth defects and
impaired offspring development and behavior.
The analysis of
the data revealed that elevated stress levels across pregnancy altered the
production of pro-inflammatory cytokines (proteins that serve as messengers
between cells of the immune system) in the offspring; the dysregulation of
cytokine production could cause certain mental disorders, infectious diseases
and diseases of the various body systems.
of the study was that the researchers did not have data on the timing of the
maternal stress exposure during pregnancy, which may play a role in the
relationship between stress and long-term health.
concluded that 'the observed associations between maternal stress during
pregnancy and offspring health may have implications for public health and
health care policy:
- First, further investment in the reduction of life stress
during pregnancy may be an important opportunity to improve child health.
- Second, our findings encourage consideration of
preventive strategies for infants of mothers who were highly stressed during
Tegethoff M, Greene N, Olsen J, Schaffner E, Meinlschmidt G 2011. Stress during
Pregnancy and Offspring Pediatric Disease: A National Cohort Study. Environ
Health Perspect 119:1647-1652.