Moms-to-be under chronic stress may be unknowingly increasing their babies' chances for developing asthma later on in life, according to a new study on umbilical cord blood from researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. The study, published in the March 1, 2010, online edition of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, surveyed over 500 pregnant women living in urban, inner city areas in the US. Participants completed a questionnaire that asked about the stress they lived with, such as domestic violence, money worries, and violence in the community.
After the babies were born, researchers exposed umbilical cord blood samples to common allergens such as dust and cockroaches, and viral and bacterial stimulants. Researchers found that cord blood samples from children born to more stressed-out moms had different immune cell responses when exposed to common environmental triggers compared to babies born to mothers who had reported less stress during pregnancy. Researchers believe this different immune system response sets the stage for allergies and asthma to develop as babies grow older.
"Current findings suggest that [a mother's] psychological stress is involved in programming of the infant immune response and that this influence begins during pregnancy," says lead study author Dr. Rosalind J. Wright, of the Channing Laboratory at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Dr. Wright and her team now plan to follow these children to measure asthma and allergy rates as they grow older. "As these infants mature, we will learn how these factors manifest later in terms of the development of asthma and allergy," Dr. Wright adds.
According to the March of Dimes, routine or everyday stressors, such as work deadlines and getting stuck in traffic, probably don't matter much to the bigger picture of your prenatal health. But certain types of severe or long-lasting stress may pose risks for you and Baby. Chronic stress in women may lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. For Baby, having a stressed-out mom can lead to increased risk for preterm birth and/or low birth weight.
If you are always under stress or have recently experienced a stress-inducing life event—divorce, death in the family, serious illness, or loss of a job— talk to your doctor or midwife about it. He or she can show you the steps you should take to lower your stress levels and keep your pregnancy healthy.