Does Stress During Pregnancy Cause Diseases and Disorders?

Research has shown that children whose mothers were highly stressed during pregnancy are more likely to suffer physical ailments that could lead to premature death. Some studies have even suggested that stress during pregnancy can cause a child to be at increased risk for illnesses such as asthma. Others have indicated links between behavioral problems, emotional problems, and maternal stress during pregnancy. In an effort to better understand the nature of this relationship, Marion Tegethoff of the Division of Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Basel in Switzerland led a study that looked specifically at how pregnancy stress influenced the later development of various diseases in children.

Tegethoff used data from more than 60,000 Danish mothers registered with the Danish National Birth Cohort. She measured the levels of maternal stress based on emotional stress and life stress and compared them to the later development of 16 specific childhood diseases. Tegethoff found that the maternal life stress did indeed increase the risk for several diseases, including parasitic and infectious illnesses, as well as both behavioral and psychological issues during the first two-and-a-half years of life. Additionally, the results revealed that the children born to stressed mothers were also at a higher risk of contracting ear, skin, eye, respiratory, digestive, and musculoskeletal diseases, among others.

In line with other studies, the results also showed a link between maternal stress and birth defects. Tegethoff did find that emotional stress was only related to infectious diseases, whereas life stress was linked to all types of illnesses. The findings provide evidence of the clear link between maternal stress and the risk for illness in their unborn children. Tegethoff believes the clinical implications of these findings are significant. She suggests that investing in reducing stress during pregnancy may help improve the health of children. She added, “Our findings encourage consideration of preventive strategies for infants of mothers who were highly stressed during pregnancy.”

Tegethoff, M., Greene, N., Olsen, J., Schaffner, E., Meinlschmidt, G. Stress During Pregnancy and Offspring Pediatric Disease: A National Cohort Study. Environmental Health Perspectives 119.11 (2011): 1647-652. Print.

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  • monica

    March 3rd, 2012 at 5:35 AM

    I have a hard time with this because the way I see it is that there has never been a mom who was not stressed during pregnancy. And not everyone ends up with some kind of disease or illness. Maybe this means stress of an unusually high level, but I think that most of us are equipped to handle moderate amounts of stress and we will do just fine.

  • Layla

    March 3rd, 2012 at 1:39 PM

    Here’s a thought- is it the stress during preganancy that causes so many of the problems or is it the things that the women do to deal with the stress that are the real issues? Think about it- maybe they are smoking or drinking and not reporting all of that because it sounds bad. It is bad. But if they just said that they were stressed, well then everyone can kind of relate to that and maybe they will not catch so much heat. It may or may not be true but it is food for thought anyway.

  • Marcy Axness

    March 3rd, 2012 at 2:01 PM

    You are so right, Monica, and the last thing anyone wants to do is make moms stressed ABOUT BEING STRESSED! I devote a good deal of discussion in my new book PARENTING FOR PEACE to the distinction between extreme or chronic, unrelenting stress, and normal daily stresses, and the role of each in fetal development.

    It may be helpful to understand the biological mechanism at work (that is, the big picture): the unceasing question being asked by the baby in the womb — one which is continually answered chemically and energetically via the mother’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors — is: “Mommy, what kind of world am I coming into?”

    High levels of stress hormones that never abate or resolve “teach” the baby via biochemistry that it’s a dangerous world out there, and his or her brain stem and other basic nervous system infrastructure wires up accordingly.

    By contrast, the normal ups and downs of a human woman’s life teach the baby that “stuff happens and we bounce back” — a very important lesson for a peacemaker!

    Marcy Axness, PhD

  • Janna

    March 4th, 2012 at 5:25 AM

    This is simply one more good reason why we have to teach especially our younger girls that they are not ready to handle the consequences of getting pregnant at such an early age. I would hazard a guess that these girls are going to feel the stress of pregnancy way more than a woman who is physically, emotionally, and financially capable of having a child.

  • serene

    March 5th, 2012 at 5:19 AM

    I know that stress can be dangerous, but enough to cause diseases in the baby? I am not so sure that I can go with that. I know that I can see how it could affect the mom but the baby? Not sure.

  • Maria Granger

    March 5th, 2012 at 4:28 PM

    When I read things like this it really scares me because my own daughter is pregnant, not married and going through a real rough patch with the baby’s father. I know that she is worried about not only is she making the right decisions in life, but also how she is going to provide for the baby when he gets here. I try to tell her not to worry, that everything will work out, but she thinks that she has made this horrible mistake and that her life is over.

  • lou

    March 5th, 2012 at 11:49 PM

    while stress in pregnant mothers having an effect on the children is understandable,what stuck to me more was that different kinds of stress result in different illnesses.sad but surprising at the same time.

  • Resha

    March 6th, 2012 at 4:42 PM

    Research has clearly shown that what happens to the mom happens to the baby plain and simple. I hope that all expectant moms take a moment to realize that it is not just their lives that they are messing with anymore, that there is a child involved and that they should really take this into account more often than what some of them do.

  • Ivette

    July 22nd, 2012 at 5:06 PM

    Regular, normal day to day stress during pregnancy probably does not have a negative effect on a child. How about severe emotional stress? My husband of 3 years had an affair and I found out during our second pregnancy. I was about 4 months along and it was the most devastating, heart breaking thing I have ever gone through. I cried for months, and went through so much anger and emotional pain. My daughter is now 10 years old but has always had acceptance issues, always very worried about fitting in, has had attention issues, but doesn’t have ADHD, is very sensitive/sentimental and needy. She is rebellious, talks back, doesn’t listen and doesn’t care about consequences. I am so concerned that these issues have something to do with my past and the depression I went through during pregnancy. If anyone has any info or input please let me know. Thank you.

  • Diane Barrett

    July 2nd, 2013 at 5:07 PM

    I believe stress will affect babies in the womb. Stress is leading cause for cancer and that baby is part of your body while in the womb. But no need to stress out about if your stressed. You just need to become aware of yourself and look at what causes you to stress and stop that task, take deep breaths and slow down relax and you find many useless reason why we stress out.

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