Stress in Pregnancy May Affect Child's Motor Skills

New research shows that experiencing high levels of stress during pregnancy may have a lasting impact on your child. So relax—here's what you need to know.

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It's the number one rule you hear when trying to conceive: Don't stress! (Because it's that easy, right?) And when you do get pregnant, those worries seem to multiply overnight, especially if you've taken to Dr. Google to analyze every twitch and pang you're feeling in those early weeks and months. But now is the time to really relax, according to new research published in the journal Child Development. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame Australia and the Telethon Kids Institute looked at the relationship between pregnancy stress in mothers and children's motor development to find that mothers who experienced stressful events during pregnancy had children who scored lower on a series of motor skill tests.

The effects of stress

Past research has provided evidence of a link between pregnancy stress and other developmental areas in children, such as mental, behavioral, and cognitive differences, but little has been done on the movement outcomes, say the co-authors of the study, Tegan Grace, a Ph.D. candidate and Beth Hands, Ph.D., professor of human movement, both at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

Using data from the West Australian Pregnancy Cohort (Raine) Study, which was established in 1989 to determine how events in pregnancy and childhood influence health later in life, Grace was able to examine the stress levels reported by mothers at different stages of their pregnancy and how they impacted their child during late childhood and adolescence. According to the study, the children were grouped into three categories: those born to mothers who experienced no stress during pregnancy, those born to mothers who experienced fewer than three stressful events during pregnancy, and those born to mothers who experienced three or more stressful events during pregnancy. The study found that children in the latter group scored lower on motor development tests out of all three groups, which included things like a distance jump, walking in a straight line heel to toe, and standing on one foot. While this may not seem like a huge issue at face value, the study adds that children with low motor competence can have difficulty with everyday tasks, such as writing, throwing, and running.

Not all stress is created equal

Before you start stressing out about, well, stressing out, it's important to remember that high-stress in this study was categorized as major life-changing events, such as financial hardship, losing a relative or friend, divorce, marital problems, losing a job, moving, or problems with the pregnancy. The co-authors also found that these high-stress situations in pregnancy affected the child's motor development more the later in pregnancy they occurred. "Statistically, my models revealed that the mothers that experienced high-stress later in their pregnancy were more likely to have a child with poorer motor outcomes that persisted into adolescence," Grace says.

It may all start in the brain

The reason these levels of late pregnancy high-stress may have such an impact on the fetus might simply be an issue of timing. "We were surprised to find that later pregnancy stress was more strongly linked to movement outcomes," Grace says. "We think this might be because the part of the brain that is mainly concerned with movement—the cerebellum—is developing later in pregnancy." That doesn't mean all hope is lost if you have a stressful situation you just can't avoid. "The great thing about this part of the brain is that it continues to develop throughout the first decade of life, which means we have time to continue providing optimal growth for this area."

Permission to chill

Whether you're pregnant with your first or third child, pregnancy is always going to be a time of heightened stress, but Grace hopes that the findings from this study will serve as a little nudge that sometimes you've got to throw in the towel and give your brain and body a break. "Hopefully this increased awareness will lead to programs that will help mothers gain access to support both during and after their pregnancy," Grace says. "Women need to know it's OK to ask for help and put their own health and well-being—and consequently that of her child—first." So go ahead, put your feet up and watch that Real Housewives of Orange County marathon—doctor's orders.

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