By Shallimar Jones, M.A.
When was the last time you were really stressed out? You might be thinking, when was the last time I wasn’t really stressed? As many of us know stress seems to impact many aspects of our lives. Studies have shown that mental illness is highly correlated to the experience of stress. Stress is also linked to poor physical health as well such as heart disease, cardio-vascular disease, and hypertension. Given these effects, stress experienced during pregnancy could be particularly damaging for the mother and the baby.
Research has shown that stress experienced during pregnancy frequently contributes to miscarriages, premature delivery, and low birth weight. According to the National Center for Health and Human Statistics almost 12.3% of US births are premature, which is almost a 30% increase since 1981. Here in Michigan, some counties reported rates of premature delivery of nearly 15%. In 2002 alone, almost 8% of all births were of low birth weight infants. Given these statistics and the heavy health-care costs associated with them, it is important to determine what prenatal factors could contribute to the high rates of these incidents. The Pregnancy Risk Assessment and Monitoring System (PRAMS) study examines pregnancy related issues for women in Michigan. In their 2003 report they found that nearly 75% of pregnant women in Michigan report at least one major life stressor, of these women, nearly 20% report experiencing more than four events during pregnancy.
Recently research suggests that stress experienced during pregnancy is also related difficult infant temperament (“fussy babies”), childhood behavior disorders such as ADHD, and other mental illnesses in later adulthood. What all these studies of stress and pregnancy do not tell is how a mother’s stress may affect her developing baby? This is the question that The Pregnancy Stress at Michigan State University hopes to help answer.
The Pregnancy Stress Study hopes to determine how stress relates to infant development. Researchers are interviewing pregnant women about their pregnancy experience and following up them when their babies are 3 months old. This study is unique because unlike most studies it follows pregnant women both before and after delivery.
In addition, it is also examining exactly how a mother’s experience of stress relates to her baby by assessing levels of a stress related hormone called cortisol. Under normal situations, the stress response and the release of cortisol is actually helpful and very healthy. However many researchers believe that continued exposure to this hormone can lead to problems with mental and physical health. Unfortunately, there are very few published studies conducted in this country that examine this in pregnant women. By looking at cortisol levels in pregnant mothers, The Pregnancy Stress Study hopes to understand the link between a mother’s actual experience of stress and infant development. The findings from this study will offer a greater understanding of risk and protective factors associated with prenatal stress and subsequent infant development. Specifically, this crucial research may help in developing future prevention and treatment strategies for pregnant women who experience stress. The cortisol data obtained from this project could also aid in early identification of women who may be at risk for subsequent pregnancy complications. With more understanding of the effects of stress during pregnancy, we may also be able to improve mental and physical health in childhood and adulthood. This in turn will help the associated cost of caring for these individuals in the health care system.
If you would like to know more about this study or if you or someone you know would like to participate in this groundbreaking research please call The Pregnancy Stress Study at (517) 402-7968.