Mother’s psychological wellbeing during pregnancy benefits child’s future health, study reveals

The results of the study showed that maternal stress significantly predicted shorter telomeres in the offspring, while positivity predicted longer telomeres.

Myupchar September 14, 2020 14:42:21 IST
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Mother’s psychological wellbeing during pregnancy benefits child’s future health, study reveals

Pregnant woman

The fact that a mother’s health affects that of her baby during pregnancy is well known, but many do not realise that this not just applies to maternal physical health but to mental health as well. Most people are now aware of postpartum depression and its long-term effects on the mother, newborn and family. A similar level of awareness among the public about maternal stress and depression during pregnancy and how it affects the foetus is needed.

Maternal stress and child health

A growing corpus of scientific studies points to the fact the maternal mental health during pregnancy plays a huge role in the child’s future psychological wellbeing. The preliminary results of a study by the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology reveal that babies of mothers suffering from mood disorders during and right after pregnancy tend to have higher heart rates and are likely to have difficult temperaments.

A study published in Current Opinion in Psychiatry in 2012 states that anxiety, depression and stress during pregnancy are associated with shorter gestation (meaning a high risk of premature birth) and have adverse implications for foetal neurodevelopment and outcomes in children. Chronic strain, anxiety and depressive symptoms during pregnancy are also associated with lower birth weight. Such babies may suffer from long-term health issues like delayed motor and social development, learning difficulties and more childhood infections. These children also tend to have a greater risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and hypertension as they grow up.

Another study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology in 2019 reveals that pregnant women with higher negativity or lower positivity towards the pregnancy, higher level of hassles, lower maternal education and higher maternal age at birth are more likely to give birth to babies who are at a higher risk of developing depression during childhood or adolescence. These children, whether male or female, are likely to have decreased cognitive function during childhood, lower perceived parental support during adolescence and higher chances of witnessing maternal depression during childhood and adolescence. Screening the mental health of pregnant women is therefore vital.

Maternal mental health and child’s telomeres

A new study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in September 2020 suggests that a mother’s psychological wellbeing can affect her baby’s telomere biology, which in turn has farreaching effects on child development. Telomeres are protective end-structures at the tail end of chromosomes. The shortening of telomeres can potentially lead to maladaptive cellular changes, block cell growth and impair tissue replenishment. Telomere biology plays a huge role in ageing and age-related diseases, and studies even suggest that telomere maintenance can tailor the risks and progressions of cancers.

Since telomere maintenance is determined by genetic factors, it makes sense to analyse if maternal stress and psychological wellbeing affect the telomere structures of the baby. For this, the study collected cord blood samples from 656 mother-child pairs at birth and also conducted serial mental health assessments of the mother throughout their pregnancy. Maternal stress and psychological resiliency were the two factors taken into account during the analysis of the child’s telomere length outcomes.

The results of the study showed that maternal stress significantly predicted shorter telomeres in the offspring, while positivity predicted longer telomeres. Maternal resilience was significantly and positively associated with newborn telomeres, with each standard deviation increase in resilience predicting 12% longer telomeres in the baby. This link between maternal psychological health and the child’s telomeres has lifelong repercussions for the offspring.

This study underlines the need for better psychosocial support for pregnant women not just for the future health of the mother, but also that of the child. The researchers behind this study are already conducting more detailed investigations into the molecular mechanisms behind this link between mother and child, while also developing intervention methods to reduce the stress in the lives of pregnant women.

For more information, read our article on Depression in pregnancy.

Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health.

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