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The roller coaster of mothers’ stress during pregnancy linked to negative emotions in babies: for journalists

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  • Prenatal stress was unrelated to timing of pandemic, study finds
  • First study to intensively measure stress during pregnancy during the pandemic, better capturing its “ebb and flow”
  • “There may be something about jumping from one extreme to the other that shapes a child’s disposition toward negative emotions”
  • Stress management could be integrated into prenatal visits as a preventive measure

CHICAGO — Pregnant women who had greater fluctuations in stress from moment to moment — also called lability — had infants with more fear, sadness and distress at three months than mothers with less variability in stress, reports a new study from Northwestern University that examined how a child’s developmental trajectory begins even before birth.

Previous research has shown that mothers’ distress during pregnancy is related to infant temperament and behavior, but this is one of the first studies to measure mothers’ experience of stress in real time at many occasions, allowing closer examination of whether changes in mothers’ stress throughout pregnancy are important for infant development.

The study will be published Sept. 7 in the journal Infancy.

“Research often looks at stress as a static, unchanging construct – high or low, present or absent – but most of us have a lot of ebb and flow in our stress depending on what’s going on around us” , the official said. study author Leigha MacNeilIAssistant Research Professor of Medical Social Sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Fellow of the Northwestern Institute for Innovations in Developmental Sciences (DevSci).

“This variability is inherent in our daily lives, so this lability captures an important aspect of stress and offers insight into how to measure stress in the future. This is of particular importance as we work to closely capture the maternal-fetal environment as it relates to how babies develop over time.

For example, a mother who has constant levels of stress during pregnancy and another mother who oscillates between very low and very high levels of stress during pregnancy may end up having a similar average level of stress during this period, but this average may not be the best. capture significant differences in what the fetus is exposed to, MacNeill explained.

“There may be something about this gestational experience, when a mother moves between extremes, that shapes the child’s disposition toward negative emotions,” MacNeill said. “This type of stress pattern could reflect instability in daily life experiences, unpredictable external stressors, or instability in how a mother perceives her lived experiences, which can have important implications for emotional development. children.”

A better understanding of the nature of stress during pregnancy can inform prevention efforts, such as helping individuals achieve a consistent level of calm before or early in pregnancy, particularly in the context of uncontrollable life events, a said MacNeill. Since most expectant parents receive some form of prenatal care, she said stress measures, and ideally management, could be incorporated into these visits.

“The stress was not linked to the time of the pandemic”

Scientists did not set out to conduct a study of prenatal stress during a pandemic. They encountered this “natural experiment” because some participants completed their assessments before the pandemic began; some before and during the pandemic; and some completely during the pandemic, MacNeill said.

“We asked about general stress, not pandemic-related stress,” MacNeill said. “But we took advantage of the onset of the pandemic during the study to see if we could detect its impact on mothers’ experiences.

“We found that mothers’ stress patterns were unrelated to the timing of the pandemic. Mothers reported similar levels of stress whether their stress measurements took place before or during the pandemic.

How they measured prenatal stress, infant temperament

The study authors measured the stress of pregnant women at up to four different times a day for 14 weeks using questions sent to participants’ phones. They identified three types of stress: stress at first (baseline) assessment, average or typical stress levels over the 14-week period, and the amount of stress a person changed from one time to the next. each other over the 14-week period. (lability).

The authors measured the infants’ negative emotions via a temperament questionnaire given to mothers when their infants were three months old. Mothers answered questions about their child’s sadness, distress, and fear (eg, how much they clung to their parent when introduced to an unfamiliar adult). This formed an overall mean negative affect score.

Studying the fluctuations of stress during pregnancy in relation to infant development is a relatively new idea, and the study authors said there is not yet a clear understanding of the impact of stress and the gestational environment on fetal development. Further research on larger, more diverse samples is needed to find out if these patterns hold true for families in different backgrounds and with different types of support, MacNeill said.

“This is a very early index (three months), so we would like to see how consistent their levels of negative affect are over the first year of life,” MacNeill said. “Parents are the ones who can soothe their babies and be really sensitive to their needs, and as babies grow there are things parents can do to help the child navigate situations and learn to regulate. and deal with negative emotions.

“This study shows that the bonds between parent and child are based on genes as well as experiences, even before birth,” said Dr. Matthew Davis, director of the Feinberg Department of Pediatrics and Ann Children’s Hospital. & Robert H. Lurie of Chicago. , who was not directly involved in the study. “One of the most important approaches to having a less distressed child is to support expectant parents and minimize their stress during pregnancy. This can be accomplished through clinical care, social supports and supportive policies. family and pregnancy.

Funding for this study was provided to DevSci by Lurie Children’s and his Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute as part of its Perinatal Origins of Disease Strategic Initiative.