One good study—and one bad one—about the effects on the baby
I lost my mum in week 35 in pregnancy, and googled what impact this would have on my unborn baby. Don’t do that! The best advice I got was to let the emotion out, that’s best for baby. My son was born a healthy weight and is now a happy healthy smiley 4 month old. The hurt of losing my mum is still raw and I let it out. I cry and talk about it alot. But once it’s out it feels better, and there is no better antidote than hugging my baby close. He doesn’t seem to mind a few tears.
My mum lost a parent while she was in the late stage of pregnancy with me so I find this fascinating in quite a self-indulgent way. I had a lot of sleep issues and extreme separation anxiety around my mum in my first few years of life, which she puts down to the impact of stress on me in the womb. I always wondered if it had more impact on her own relationship to me and saw her clinging on more strongly to her baby in her grief, which then impacted on my relationship and experience of the world.
i feel this is very helpful advice to avoid major life transitions while pregnant if possible. i know women/couples who CHOOSE to move house and cities, to accept visits from in-laws that stress them out severely, or take on second jobs etc while pregnant. It seems like the second study is helpful decision-making information to say ‘no’ or ‘not right now’ to those kinds of life things.
I think the key, that I have read in the new stories, is the importance of resiliency factors that help reduce the effect that increased cortisol levels have on the child. I had extreme stress during my pregnancy with my daughter- an illness that caused me not to sleep which led to panic attacks,depression, and a very anxious pregnancy. That baby is now 6 years old and has been in therapy since she was 3 and we have an appt with a psychiatrist in December because she has dealt with severe anxiety her whole life. BUT, outside of what we see at home, she is doing great in school, she has a great group of friends and is very actibe and social. She needs a lot of support and thankfully we can give that to her. My pregancy with my 4 year old was much more relaxed and thankfully he has not shown the same signs of anxiety. I share this story because I think that it's important for moms to know that if you do have a lot of stress during pregnancy, that is not the end of the story- your baby is not doomed. But it is important to know the impact so that you are prepared to help that child the best you can as soon as they show signs of needing additional support.
Love the analysis Emily, and also the very pragmatic conclusion that often stressful events are hard or even impossible to avoid, and the best approach is managing the stress as best we can rather than panicking about the effect on the baby
Thank you for addressing this topic! It is very important that mothers do not feel guilty about stress during pregnancy in addition to the stress they are experiencing. I also think the ADHD medication finding could be based on maternal expectation... given the panic headlines about stress during pregnancy that we have all seen, it would make sense that mothers who lost a relative during pregnancy would be more likely to seek help for their children and thus more likely to put them on ADHD medication
Funny, too, how much the Western approach to pregnancy and risk *contribute* to increased stress during pregnancy, regardless of what else might be on our plate. The general impression from my doctor was that if I ate one bite of Brie cheese, my fetus would never recover.
Also funny how financially stressed we are during pregnancy in the absence of paid leave options.
Thanks, as always, for helping us cut through the hysteria!
I experienced a one-two punch of learning my baby had a congenital heart defect and possible genetic abnormality at 22 weeks pregnant, then losing my healthy and active dad to a heart attack just a week later (while we were on a trip heading out of the country, no less). I guess I'm an example of that second study coming to fruition, as my son was premature and only 4 lb 6 oz at birth. Hard to say if that was due to his heart defect or stress, of course. On a more optimistic note, our son is the happiest, most easygoing 6 month old who sleeps fantastically and whose smile melts everyone's heart, so at least we have that going for us!
To me part of the issue with these studies is calling it “stress.” We think of stress as encompassing a lot of things. The second study causes severe stress and physiological impacts of that -- it’s grief. Work stress just isn’t the same level.
I wonder how the stress of the early pandemic days will impact babies born in 2020. Looking forward to you parsing out future research on this topic!
Thanks for this. I'm 19 weeks with my second and expecting to lose my dad before my due date (terminal illness we've known about for 3+ years). The baby is also due the day after his birthday, which feels touching, spiritual, wonderful, and emotional all at once.
It's a uniquely tough/odd situation to be in. While I have a solid support system - including a therapist - a lot of that support comes down to people empathizing and saying "this really sucks." It's helpful to connect with folks who've been in this unique position, so if anyone would ever like to connect, I'm happy to.
Great post but regarding the small effect claim, I see two possible objections. Stress difference between treatment and controls groups may itself have been small, if latter had a sick or dying relative. And people who face multiple stressors with cumulative effects may also experience large effects. Especially in less egalitarian societies than Sweden.
The research on ACES shows us that building resiliency is key to long-term outcomes. Resiliency has specific components that you can nurture if you find yourself in adverse circumstances:
1. Lean into your personal capabilities and by giving, you will build your knowing that you are important and valuable
2. Practice feelings of attachment and belonging--basically make sure to have healthy, positive relationships with competent adults
3. Go out into your community, enjoy your culture and spirituality so that you feel the upward trajectory of the group and that you are a part of it
These three things turn out to be more important than individual traumas when it comes to if the trauma brings a person down or not.
Love your scholarly and scientific savvy.