Along with hope and joy, a pregnancy brings a host of new concerns for the welfare of both mom and baby. Adding these concerns to the already hectic lives of most American women brings up another worry–are stress and anxiety during pregnancy detrimental to a baby’s development? The research to date is conflicting, leaving expectant parents worrying about the effects of their worrying on their unborn children.

A new study reports that moderate prenatal distress actually enhances child development. The women who reported higher levels of anxiety, stress, and depressive symptoms during their pregnancies had children with more advanced motor and mental development than women who reported lower levels of distress. The findings are in the May/June 2006 issue of Child Development .

About the Study

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development recruited healthy pregnant women. Ninety-four mother-child pairs completed the study, which began at the 24th week of pregnancy and extended to the child’s second birthday. Three times during pregnancy and twice postpartum, the women completed a series of questionnaires designed to assess anxiety, stress, and depression, as well as pregnancy-specific negativity. A psychologist evaluated each child’s development at age two. The data was analyzed for associations between prenatal distress and child development.

Women who reported higher levels of anxiety, stress, and depressive symptoms during pregnancy had children with more advanced mental and motor skill development at age two. This connection remained evident even after researchers accounted for the role that postpartum distress may have played in child development.

Attitudes specific to pregnancy showed a different effect. The children born to women who reported negative thoughts about their pregnancies showed slower mental development and poorer control of emotions. On the other hand, children of mothers who were positive about their pregnancies exhibited more advanced development and better emotional control.

This study began at week 24 of pregnancy, so the effects of distress during the first and second trimesters are unknown. In addition, the women were healthy and only confronted with the stress of daily life. Therefore, these findings do not apply to women with preexisting mood disorders or who endure intense or prolonged stress during pregnancy.

How Does This Affect You?

From this study, expectant parents can be reassured that the moderate stress and anxiety of a busy lifestyle will not harm their baby, and in fact, may even help a little. These results fit with previous findings that moderate maternal stress accelerates growth and development of young children. Just as weight-bearing exercise stresses bones to make them stronger, it is theorized that intrauterine exposure to moderate stress may enhance brain and organ development.

Expectant parents should also be wary. The adverse effects linked to a mother’s negative feelings about her pregnancy should not be overlooked. Moderate stress must be distinguished from more significant and lasting distress. Concerns about your baby and mood swings are common during pregnancy, but in some cases, can become overwhelming. If you or your partner experiences any of the following symptoms, talk with your healthcare provider:

  • Mood swings that become more frequent or intense, or last for more than two weeks
  • Persistent sadness or feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or hopelessness
  • Recurrent anxiety and increased irritability
  • Change in sleeping or eating habits
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of interest in activities usually enjoyed