While we are aware of the fatal effects of the consumption of nicotine, alcohol and an unhealthy diet on the developing fetus, what about a mother’s mental health?
Emotional state during Pregnancy especially the mother’s Stress, Anxiety, and Depression levels impact the child’s development with long-lasting consequences. According to Dr Thomas Verny, the founder of the Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health, a mother’s emotions can cross into womb just like alcohol and nicotine. Hence, a mother’s poor and mental-emotional well-being increases the infant’s risk of psychological disorders, such as depression, ADHD, anxiety and other conditions. The prenatal phase is thus a crucial period since it is during this time that the fetus is extremely vulnerable to a range of exposures that can have long-lasting effects on the development of the brain and impact the psychological and the physical health of the fetus.
On examining the effects of mother’s stress on the changing metabolism of the placenta and its impact on the fetus, researchers of the University of Zurich found that the placenta of mothers who experience long-term stress tend to release Corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) which then enters the amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus. The increase in CRH is further related to an increase in stress hormone-Cortisol.
Bergaman et al (2010) examined the effects of cortisol in the amniotic fluid on the foetal brain development and found higher levels of amniotic cortisol to be associated with lower cognitive scores. Professor Glover, in a study, concluded that infants whose mothers experienced high levels of stress during pregnancy have IQs 10 points below the average and reported higher than normal levels of anxiety and attention deficit problems.
Research also suggests that fetuses register mothers’ stress, and fetal reactivity correlates with infant temperament at 4 months with potentially harmful effects on the brain and development. Even in the womb, the fetus can grasp the cues about their future from the environment and learns to adapt accordingly. In terms of the temperament, infants whose mothers experienced high levels of anxiety or depression during pregnancy report difficulty in temperaments. Madigan et al (2018), indicated that mothers who experienced prenatal depression and anxiety have children with behavioural difficulties 1.5-2 times greater than children whose mothers have no problems.
Catherine Monk, Professor of Medical Psychology in Psychiatry and Obstetrics and Gynecology at Columbia University Research showed that a fetus with a quicker heart rate recovery has an easier temperament and are more prosocial in childhood. The stress regulation system during infancy forms the foundation of the child’s temperament (reactivity and regulation) and affects the attachment patterns of the child and their ability to explore the world and receive feedback from the world fro their growth. It also affects their health and their immune system.
Even during adulthood, the ability to manage internal stress, positive and negative emotions and energetic arousal- all affects our physical and mental health, decision making, quality of our relationships and even our creativity. Some research also points towards stress regulation having consequences for education, employment, and overall life satisfaction.
Pregnancy can itself incite various emotions- such as feeling overwhelmed, happiness and nervousness, it can also result in major mood swings, shifting the positive emotions to feeling extremely anxious which can elevate women’s stress level. It is thus important to remain as stress-free as possible during pregnancy.
It is therefore important that the pregnant mother receives support and reassurance from family and friends for the sake of a safe and healthy baby.