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Prenatal stress could lead to premature birth

Researchers found that high stress levels could also affect a baby’s sex

Photo (c) Chinnapong - Getty Images
As researchers continue to explore the role that stress can play for pregnant women and their babies, a new study conducted by researchers from Columbia University discovered that prenatal stress can impact both a baby’s birth date and sex. 

According to the researchers, high stress levels can increase the risk of premature birth, as well as affect the sex of the baby. 

“We know from animal studies that exposure to high levels of stress can raise levels of stress hormones like cortisol in the uterus, which in turn can affect the fetus,” said researcher Catherine Monk, PhD. “Stress can also affect the mother’s immune system, leading to changes that affect neurological and behavioral development in the fetus. What’s clear from our study is that maternal mental health matters, not only for the mother but also for her future child.” 

Exploring the effects of high stress levels

The researchers analyzed stress levels for nearly 200 pregnant women via physical tests and questionnaires to see which types of stress were the most common. The findings showed that psychological stress, which can include depression and anxiety, and physical stress, such as high blood pressure, were the two biggest stressors for the women.

Based on the findings, the researchers learned that higher levels of psychological stress increased the likelihood of birth complications, whereas those with higher levels of physical stress were more likely to have premature births or babies born with slower nervous system development. 

Overall, the study found that higher stress levels -- regardless of what kind of stress -- decreased the chances that mothers gave birth to male babies. 

“This stress in women is likely of long-standing nature; studies have shown that males are more vulnerable to adverse prenatal environments, suggesting that highly stressed women may be less likely to give birth to a male due to the loss of prior male pregnancies often without even knowing they were pregnant,” said Monk. 

The researchers say social support is an integral component of maintaining lower stress levels for pregnant women. Finding and keeping that social support is key for healthy pregnancies and healthy babies. 

“Screening for depression and anxiety are gradually becoming a routine part of prenatal practice,” said Monk. “But while our study was small, the results suggest enhancing social support is potentially an effective target for clinical intervention.”

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