A new study reveals prenatal stress has a physical effect on babies. Researchers report prenatal maternal stress in late gestation leads to slower growth of the offspring both in utero and during infancy.
Researchers from The Universities of New Mexico and Göttingen have now proposed a hypothesis that largely predicts why there are highly variable patterns in the growth rates of disadvantaged offspring across 719 studies on 21 mammal species.
“The idea is that prenatal stress affects offspring in two different ways depending on the timing of the stressor during pregnancy—yielding different outcomes before birth, after birth, and after weaning” says Andreas Berghänel, evolutionary anthropologist at The University of New Mexico and lead author of the study.
For example, prenatal maternal stress late in gestation causes mothers to invest less energy in their offspring, which leads to slower grow in the womb and during infancy. Once the baby has reached nutritional independence, however, they are no longer affected directly by their mother’s provisioning, and consequently grow at the same rate as non-disadvantaged offspring. Thus, maternal stress late in gestation leads to slow growth during dependent phases, but doesn’t affect growth later.
By contrast, prenatal maternal stress early in gestation can cause the fetus to be entirely reprogrammed to deal with a reduced life expectancy. To “make the best of a bad job,” the early challenged offspring switches to an accelerated pace of life and grows and matures faster than unchallenged offspring to ensure that it reproduces before it dies. Once set on the fast track, the offspring under early prenatal maternal stress remain on this trajectory even after weaning and therefore overshoot the usual body size for age throughout development.
“We found that stress during late gestation reduces offspring growth during dependence, resulting in a reduced body size throughout development, whereas stress during early gestation results in largely unaffected growth rates during dependence but accelerated growth and increased size after weaning,” says Berghänel.
Dr. Aristotle's Comment:
3 Examples of Stress Relief During Pregnancy
1. Restoring Pelvic Balance and Poor Posture
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