Changes to mothers’ stress levels affects infant development

September 12, 2022
Changes to mothers’ stress levels affects infant development

New research by Northwestern University has revealed how maternal fluctuations in stress – stress variability, termed lability – influences infant development. Research reports state that pregnant mothers with greater lability had infants with more fear, sadness and distress at three months old, compared to mothers with less stress variability.

“Most of us have a lot of ebbs and flows in our stress depending on what is going on around us,” said Leigha MacNeill, Assistant research professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine (Feinberg).

“There may be something about gestational experience, when a mother moves between extremes, that shapes the child’s disposition toward negative emotions. That kind of stress pattern could reflect instability in daily life experiences, unpredictable external stressors or instability in how a mother perceives her lived experiences, which may have important implications for children’s emotional development.”

The researchers had surveyed a number of pregnant people to determine general and pandemic-related stress levels, over the course of 14 weeks. “We found that mothers’ stress patterns were unrelated to the timing of the pandemic. Mothers reported similar levels of stress regardless of whether their stress measurements occurred before or during the pandemic,” MacNeill said.

The researchers also measured infants’ negative emotions via a temperament questionnaire given to mothers when their infants were three months old. Mothers answered questions about their child’s sadness, distress to limitations and fearfulness (e.g., how much they clung to their parent when introduced to an unfamiliar adult).

Together, it formed an overall negative affect average score.

“This is a really early index (three months), so we’d want to see how consistent their negative affect levels are in the first year of life,” MacNeill said. “Parents are the ones who can soothe their infants and be really responsive to their needs, and as infants grow, there are things parents can do to help the child navigate situations and learn to regulate and cope with their negative emotions.”

Dr. Matthew Davis, Chair of the Department of Paediatrics at Feinberg, said, “One of the most important approaches to having a less distressed child is to support expectant parents and minimise their stress during pregnancy.”

He suggested intervention by way of family- and pregnancy-friendly clinical care, social supports and policies.

Category: Education, Features

Comments are closed.