Babies Can Absorb Their Mother’s Stress in the Womb

Research carried out by the Harvard Medical School has shown that women who suffer from stress and anxiety during pregnancy may pass some stress on to their foetuses, in the form of increased sensitivity to allergen exposure, with a possible increase in risk of developing asthma.

In the study, researchers analysed levels of maternal stress and mother’s exposure to dust mite allergen in their homes while pregnant. These were compared with cord blood IgE expression – a marker of the child’s immune response at birth – in nearly 400 infants. They found raised levels of IgE expression in cord blood among babies whose mothers experienced higher level stress even when exposed to fairly low levels of dust mite during pregnancy.

The lead researcher, Rosalind Wright, said the research added to a growing body of evidence that connected maternal stress – such as that precipitated by financial problems or relationship issues – to changes in children’s developing immune systems, even in pregnancy.

“This further supports the notion that stress can be thought of as a social pollutant that, when ‘breathed’ into the body, may influence the body’s immune response similar to the effects of physical pollutants like allergens, thus adding to their effects,” she said.

Stress related illnesses such as asthma and hayfever are still increasing in children, and it is possible that one factor could be the affect of more mothers having to work late into pregnancy for financial reasons. There is often little that can be done to totally eliminate stress, however, several activities can help. Pre-natal exercise has been shown to be a good way for mothers to relieve stress, and of course a healthy diet and plenty of sleep (not always easy in later stages of pregnancy) can help women to cope under stressful conditions at work and at home.

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