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The Impact of Maternal Stress on Infants

Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have recently given us even more reason to take the effects of stress seriously. According to the newest results of a longitudinal population study, girls who are born into families with high levels of stress are more likely to suffer from anxiety and disruptions in brain function as teenagers.

The study, published in the journal of Nature Neuroscience on Monday, found that a high level of maternal stress in a female’s first year of life is linked to hormonal changes later in childhood that lead to abnormal brain connectivity and signs of anxiety and depression at age 18. Teenage girls whose mothers reported high levels of family stress when the girls were babies show reduced connections between the amygdala, the “threat center” of the brain, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation.

The higher general levels of stress that the mothers reported include marital problems, symptoms of depression, parenting frustration, feeling overwhelmed in their role as a parent, and financial pressures. The researchers found a stronger connection between the teenagers’ anxiety symptoms and their childhood stress than with the stress in their current lives. The young men in the study did not show any of these patterns.

Back in 2002 a study of this sample found that, as four-year-olds, these girls also showed higher levels of cortisol in their saliva, which is thought to demonstrate the stress the children experienced. These high cortisol levels correlated with aggression, impulsivity and other behavioral problems when the children were observed two years later.

A large number of previous studies have also shown that stress early in life is a risk factor for many emotional and physical problems later in life, including mood disorders, substance abuse, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. The new research reinforces the need to reduce the stress children experience early in life. As Marilyn Essex, co-director of the Wisconsin Study of Families and Work, said, “it raises important questions about what we can do to better support young parents and families … We might be able to step in early and show them ways to deal with the stress, to teach them to be more resilient and not develop these symptoms of anxiety or depression.”

For more information on ways to reduce your stress levels, both to promote the mental health of your children and to help yourself, explore our Nurses4Wellness Community or feel free to contact us.