Lesson 6 of 7 - learn to parent effectively

Stress in Womb
Can Alter Life Later

Mom-baby bonding is a factor

LiveScience Staff via
Yahoo Online News  - 2/27/10

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/parent/news/fetus.htm

Updated  04-18-2015

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      This research supports the premise that low-nurturance early environments can promote life-long psychological injuries in young kids. Maternal "stress" during pregnancy and after delivery may detract from child nurturance, It can be one or more of these: significant anxiety ("worry"), frustration, guilt, shame, anger, confusion, grief, and/or overwhelm. See my comments after the article. Links and hilights below are mine. - Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

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A stressed pregnant woman might put her infant at risk for cognitive problems later in life. But a mother's nurture could protect against this risk, a new study finds.

The research provides the first direct human evidence that fetuses exposed to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which possibly gets released in the mother's body when she's stressed out, could have trouble paying attention or solving problems as they grow up. But what may be more intriguing is that this negative link disappears almost entirely if the mother forges a secure connection with her baby.

Future studies are needed to confirm the findings, said study author Thomas O'Connor, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.

Good Parenting

O'Connor and his colleagues recruited 125 pregnant women, who were at 17 weeks gestation on average, and took samples of their amniotic fluid so that stress hormones levels could be measured.

When their children reached 17 months of age, researchers tested cognitive abilities with puzzles, pretend play, and baby memory challenges.

They also watched the baby and mother interact. Using the Ainsworth "Strange Situation" test, which judges childrearing quality, the researchers categorized these mom-baby pairs as either showing secure or insecure attachment to each other.

Secure children will be able to explore their surroundings while their mother is around, and will be sad if the mother leaves and happy when she comes back. Insecure children do not explore as much, and exhibit other insecure behaviors, such as showing no emotion when the mother leaves or returns, or becoming very anxious when she goes away, yet resisting her affection upon reunion.

For the insecure mom-baby pairs, the moms who had higher prenatal stress-hormone levels were more likely to have kids with shorter attention spans and weaker language and problem-solving skills. But for kids who had secure relationships with their moms, any negative link between high prenatal cortisol exposure and kids' cognitive development was eliminated.

"Pregnancy is an emotional experience for many women, and there is already so much for mothers to be careful of and concerned about," O'Connor said. "It's a relief to learn that, by being good parents, they might 'buffer'' their babies against potential setbacks."

Fetal programming

The results agree with the theory of "fetal programming," the idea that events in the womb could prime the developing child for long-term health and developmental outcomes. Past studies, for instance, have found a pregnant mother's diet can sway a child's long-term risk for heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

However, the researchers note it is hard to tell whether high levels of stress hormone result from an anxious mother or are excreted directly from the fetus itself.

They hope to follow up with the children at age 6 to see the long-term effects of in-utero cortisol levels and parenting style. The tests would include imaging studies of the children's brains.

The results were published online Feb. 25, 2010 in the journal Biological Psychiatry. The research was funded by March of Dimes and the National Institute of Mental Health.


      This study's results support the premise that "low nurturance parenting" (starting in the womb) can promote a baby's becoming a Grown Wounded Child . It is significant that in 2010, this is described as "the first direct human evidence" that stress in pregnancy can hinder some aspects of fetal development. The summary doesn't define "stress."

      The study also didn't examine the causes of elevated maternal cortisol levels. They might be...

  • normal internal stress (worry and discomfort) about the gestation and birth process, and/or...

  • situational (environmental) stress from other spousal and family issues, and/or...

  • the mother being psychologically wounded (e.g. chronically anxious, guilty, shamed, and frustrated) - perhaps a legacy of her own low-nurturance childhood. 

      The findings suggest that prenatal stress (cortisol levels) and insecure mom-baby bonding were related to hindered development in the growing child.

      From 36 years professional research, I propose that difficulty bonding (Reactive Attachment Disorder or RAD) is one of six psychological wounds  acquired from significant early-childhood abandonment, neglect and abuse (trauma). If a mother has "significant" wounds, she may be unable to bond with her infant - who then may be at risk of developing its own wounds as it grows. Ignorance and denial of this is the heart of the unseen epidemic [wounds + unawareness] cycle.

      Many other factors affect this possibility, such as other nurturing family members, adoption, and environmental stressors.

      Implication: before conceiving kids, women should assess whether (a) they are prone to chronic stress (i.e. whether they bear psychological wounds) - and if so, (b) whether they are able to bond well. If not, pregnancy may put their infants at major risk of RAD and major life-long personal and social problems.

      Another implication - because average young couples (a) don't know what this cortisol / bonding study found, and (b) don't want to know they bear major psychological wounds, RAD will continue to pass down the generations until societies require some form of mental-health-testing for potential parents.   

      As Dr. O'Connor says, much more research on maternal stress, bonding, and child development is needed. - Peter K. Gerlach MSW

      self-improvement Lesson 1 in this non-profit Web site explores psychological wounding and wound-recovery. Lesson 6 explores effective parenting.

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