Mom’s Stress: Its Effects On The Fetus

Life experiences are hard on all of us, and often, this can result in stress that has the capacity to affect our mental and emotional health, as well as our behavior.

In fact, research suggests that an expectant mom’s stress can also affect the development of her unborn baby in the womb, as well as throughout the baby’s entire lifetime after birth. 

Researchers are finding that short-term stress has little to NO long-term effect on the fetus, but long-term stress, such as a mom suffering from emotional problems, physical abuse, life situational and financial issues, and so on, over a long period of time while pregnant, can set up serious problems for the fetus. 

Specifically, the mom’s MENTAL STATE influences and sets up the ‘ENVIRONMENTAL-STATE-OF-THE-WOMB,’ where the fetus lives and develops.  When mom is highly stressed, her body releases the stress hormone called (corticotrophin–releasing hormone) cortisol.  During pregnancy, the placenta, which supplies blood and nutrients to the baby, also emits cortisol, which gets into the amniotic fluids that envelop the growing fetus. Here are a few findings:

  • High levels of prolonged cortisol alter gut bacteria in the mother which reduces nutrients provided to the fetus. This could alter the baby’s brain structure and functioning, which contributes to mood disorders and anxieties later in life. (Talge et al, 2007);
  • Prolonged stress in pregnancy could result in mental or physical illnesses later in life… and/or cardiovascular disorders;
  • Researchers at the University of Zurich found that mom’s prolonged physical stress could “change the metabolism in the placenta and influence the growth of the unborn child;”
  • Heart rates of fetuses of depressed mothers “are higher than the norm …and can take 3.5 times as long to return to their normal baseline;”
  • Prolonged stress lowers the fetus’ immune system function (Howerton & Bale, 2012).

Needless to say, it is profound how much stress hormones can affect the fetus and the born-human later in life.  British researcher Vivette Glover says that the fetus tries to prepare for handling its future life.  If the fetus views its life in the womb as unstable and scary, its personality after being born may be unconsciously ‘programmed’ into a more vigilant, stressed, and ‘jumpy’ persona in order to handle that prenatal scary life (Glover, 2011).  

ANOTHER INTERESTING FACT: In the article, “Stress pre-birth: How the Fetus is Affected by a Mother’s State of Mind,” printed in the inaugural issue of the International Journal of Birth and Parent Education; Issue 1, 2013, it was stated that as early as 1937, experiments had been done to show that when saccharin was added to the amniotic fluid, the fetuses swallowed the amniotic fluids more often because of the sweet taste.  Then, it was later shown that if bitter fluids were added to the amniotic fluids, the fetuses swallowed or drank of the fluids significantly less often (Bradley & Mistretta, 1975).  Therefore, cortisol with its bitter taste would influence the fetus to drink much less often.   

There is so much more to learn in this area.  It will be interesting to see future findings.  Meanwhile, this information points to the need to have support services available for expectant moms, especially if they are depressed or stressed.  


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