HomeMedicineStress during pregnancy may affect infant brain development

Stress during pregnancy may affect infant brain development

Approximately 25% of pregnant women will suffer significantly from stress.1 While stress can lead to poor health outcomes in the mother, it can also affect the health of the baby inside her womb. High levels of stress during pregnancy are concerning to clinicians as they may be associated with abnormal fetal brain development.2-4

In a recent study published in JAMA Network Open by the Children’s National Hospital, researchers investigated the consequences of exposing fetuses to high levels of stress during pregnancy.1 A total of 97 healthy mothers – with a mean maternal age of 34.8 years old – and their infants were recruited into the study.2

The results of this study showed that the children whose mothers who had higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression during pregnancy had lower levels of cognitive development by the time they were 18 months old.1

In addition, features of brain development were noticeably different in children whose mothers experienced elevated stress while pregnant. Researchers suggested that these physical changes to the brain have been previously associated with dyslexia, autism, as well as impaired memory and function.2

The study also found that an environment of psychological distress after childbirth may have a toll on parent-child interactions. It was determined that children raised in such conditions were associated with more problematic development in terms of social and emotional aspects of life.2 For example, these children may struggle to build positive relationships with their mothers and others around them, as a result of their stressful upbringing.1

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the findings of this study are particularly useful. During these unprecedented times, there have been higher incidences of maternal stress, anxiety, and depression.2,5-6 These rates could have detrimental effects on the development of the next generation of children, and more awareness needs to be brought to this issue.

Fortunately, there is hope that early interventions can aid mothers to reduce their stress during pregnancy. According to Dr. Catherine Limperopoulos, chief and director of the Developing Brain Institute at Children’s National Hospital, lowering these symptoms can improve the health of their newborn babies.1 Overall, it is essential that mothers monitor their stress while pregnant and consult a healthcare professional with any concerns they may have.


  1. Stress, anxiety and depression during pregnan | EurekAlert! Accessed June 1, 2022. https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/951075
  2. Wu Y, Espinosa KM, Barnett SD, et al. Association of Elevated Maternal Psychological Distress, Altered Fetal Brain, and Offspring Cognitive and Social-Emotional Outcomes at 18 Months. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(4):e229244. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.9244
  3. Van Den Bergh BRH, Dahnke R, Mennes M. Prenatal stress and the developing brain: Risks for neurodevelopmental disorders. Dev Psychopathol. 2018;30(3):743-762. doi:10.1017/S0954579418000342
  4. Van Essen DC, Barch DM. The human connectome in health and psychopathology. World Psychiatry. 2015;14(2):154-157. doi:10.1002/wps.20228
  5. Lebel C, MacKinnon A, Bagshawe M, Tomfohr-Madsen L, Giesbrecht G. Elevated depression and anxiety symptoms among pregnant individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic. J Affect Disord. 2020;277:5-13. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2020.07.126
  6. Merz EC, Monk C, Bansal R, et al. Neonatal brain metabolite concentrations: Associations with age, sex, and developmental outcomes. PLoS One. 2020;15(12):e0243255. doi:10.1371/JOURNAL.PONE.0243255

Photo by Helena Lopes at Pexels

Andrew Mihalache
Andrew Mihalache
Andrew Mihalache is an enthusiastic learner with a specialization in human physiology at the University of Western Ontario. He possesses a strong passion for epidemiology and medical research and aspires to become a clinician-researcher dedicated to innovating patient healthcare in the future.


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