Stress in pregnancy may influence an infant's brain development, revealed a new study published in eLife.
Stress levels in mothers, measured by a hormone associated with anxiety, are related to changes in the infant brain's areas related to emotional development.
The study highlights the urgent need for women to be better supported by their mental and physical health before and during pregnancy.
Stress during pregnancy (maternal stress) influences a child's behavior and regulates emotions as it grows.
Scientists have used objective measure-levels of cortisol hormone in the mother to study baby brain development.
Cortisol hormone is involved in the body's response to stress; higher stress levels play a crucial role in fetal growth.
University of Edinburgh research revealed that cortisol levels are associated with the development of the baby's amygdala, an area of the brain known to be involved in emotional and social development in childhood.
Scientists took hair samples from 78 pregnant women to determine the women's cortisol levels in the previous three months.
The women's babies underwent a series of brain scans using Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI, a non-invasive scan that took place whilst the baby slept.
The study findings help explain why children whose mothers experienced high levels of stress during pregnancy may be more likely to have emotional issues in later life.
Lead researcher, Professor James Boardman, Director of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory at the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health at the University of Edinburgh, said: "Our findings are a call to action to detect and support pregnant women who need extra help during pregnancy as this could be an effective way of promoting healthy brain development in their babies".
Professor Rebecca Reynolds, Personal Chair of Metabolic Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, who co-led the study, said: "Thankfully, psychological treatments are very successful at helping mothers and children and we hope that our findings could guide therapies in future to help spot those who might be most in need of support."