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Stressed Moms May Deliver Early

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A recent study by British researchers found that sudden, stressful events in the first few weeks of pregnancy may put them at risk for having a baby with birth defects of the face, lips, or heart.

"I think our study fits with that in the sense that as far as [birth defects] go, the fetus itself is vulnerable early on, separate from the mother," Glynn says. "Now you can layer on to that the stress transmitted by the mother to the fetus. So there's kind of a double vulnerability going on: one that is related to the rate of development of the fetus, and the other one related to the mother's responses to the stress."

In Glynn's study, women who were exposed to the earthquake in the first trimester gave birth at an average of 38.05 weeks, while those who were in their third trimester delivered at an average of 38.99 weeks. A typical pregnancy is 40 weeks.

While the differences are not drastic, Glynn says they do show the potential for premature delivery. With more research, she hopes the information may be useful to researchers trying to develop interventions against premature birth. One of those interventions may be for women to avoid stressful events during the first trimester.

But experts say studies have not consistently showed that stress, even severe stress, always leads to bad outcomes for pregnant women.

Mark Klebanoff, MD, says studies of women who were pregnant during a war in Israel -- which should have been a stressful time -- showed no increase in prematurity rates. Klebanoff, director of the National Institute for Child Health and Development's Division of Epidemiology, Statistics, and Prevention Research in Bethesda, Md., says while the studies are all interesting, individual people will have individual responses to stress that can't always be generalized or predicted.

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