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Fetus to Mom: You're Stressing Me Out!

Fetus to Mom: You're Stressing Me Out!
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Throw Out the 'Blueprint' continued...

"This view has more or less been completely turned upside down," says Dr. Wadhwa, who is co-editing a special issue of scientific papers on pregnancy and stress to be published in Health Psychology next year. "At each stage of development, the organism uses cues from its environment to decide how best to construct itself within the parameters of its genes."

Stress is an example of how a fetus responds to stimuli in the womb and adapts physiologically. "When the mother is stressed, several biological changes occur, including elevation of stress hormones and increased likelihood of intrauterine infection," Dr. Wadhwa says. "The fetus builds itself permanently to deal with this kind of high-stress environment, and once it's born may be at greater risk for a whole bunch of stress-related pathologies."

Pre-term births and low birth weight are among the most recognized effects of maternal stress during pregnancy, established over nearly two decades of animal and human research. Recent studies by Dr. Wadhwa and colleagues suggest that women who experience high levels of psychological stress are significantly more likely to deliver pre-term. Typically, one in 10 women delivers pre-term (before 37 weeks).

Pre-term babies are susceptible to a range of complications later, including chronic lung disease, developmental delays, learning disorders and infant mortality. There's even compelling evidence from epidemiological studies and animal research that babies who experience stress in utero are more likely to develop chronic health problems as adults, such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Most recently, some studies are suggesting that stress in the womb can affect a baby's temperament and neurobehavioral development. Infants whose mothers experienced high levels of stress while pregnant, particularly in the first trimester, show signs of more depression and irritability. In the womb, they also are slower to "habituate" or tune out repeated stimuli -- a skill that, in infants, is an important predictor of IQ.

"Who you are and what you're like when you're pregnant will affect who that baby is," says Janet DiPietro, a developmental psychologist at Johns Hopkins University. "Women's psychological functioning during pregnancy -- their anxiety level, stress, personality -- ultimately affects the temperament of their babies. It has to ... the baby is awash in all the chemicals produced by the mom."

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