Home Mental Health & Well-Being Prenatal Maternal Distress and Its Impact on the Baby

Prenatal Maternal Distress and Its Impact on the Baby

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Motherhood is a delightful feeling and can be experienced right from conception. With our day-to-day lifestyle, we are bound to experience stress in one way or another. Stress induces anxiety, which in turn affects the entire psychophysical stability.

When it comes to pregnant mothers, the distress does not only impact her alone but also the baby who is coming into a new world. The emotional stability of the mother is of supreme significance. The most harmful factor is stress on the part of the mother. If the mother’s psychophysical well-being is affected by adverse environmental, dietary, familial factors during gestation, the fetus in the womb, which is highly vulnerable suffers the consequences in a variety of ways that haunt them for their entire life.

Prenatal development

Prenatal development is the process that includes the period from the formation of an embryo, through the development of a fetus, until birth. Maternal distress is being emotionally imbalanced and mentally strained during the period of pregnancy.

Stressful feelings can be chronic like difficulty getting up in the morning, being in a low mood for a long time, not eating or sleeping.

Prior exposure to trauma or abuse or excessive fear of parenting can also be a cause of maternal distress. Intense stress includes the loss of a loved one; war; a major catastrophe like an earthquake, flood, virus outbreak. These stressors will lead to miscarriage, premature babies, or low birth weight infants. Nowadays the major stressors are related to divorce or the loss of a job. 

Cortisol is a stress hormone that is produced as a result of the body’s stress response and women with anxiety and depression have higher levels of cortisol. So, when the placenta registers the higher levels of cortisol from the mother, there will be an epigenetic change, which allows more cortisol to the growing fetus affecting the stress regulation system. Scientists say that placenta is highly vulnerable to maternal distress. 

Research findings

There is strong evidence that prenatal distress during pregnancy increases the likelihood of preterm birth. Babies whose mothers experienced toxic levels of stress while pregnant are statistically more likely to have respiratory and digestive problems, irritability, or sleep problems in the first three years of life. New-borns of mothers who were depressed during pregnancy is four times more likely to have a low birth weight than babies born to mothers who are not depressed. When women are depressed during pregnancy, there’s also a greater likelihood that they’ll suffer postpartum depression, which can become a major challenge for the whole family. Research conducted at the University of Cambridge says that positive interaction with the baby during pregnancy is important for them to learn and develop in the later years.

Complications of maternal distress

Pregnant women who are exposed to chronic, as well as common life stressors (bereavement, earthquake,etc.), will show the effect on the child’s neurodevelopment resulting in autism and reduced cognitive ability. Recent studies have shown that maternal anxiety and/or depression will result in the mental illness of children. Higher levels of prenatal depression and anxiety will affect the emotional health of young children. Maternal anxiety will also further impact the childhood and adolescent years of children and it is also found to cause ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) symptoms in 8–9 years old children. 

Interventions to overcome maternal distress

  • Engage in self-care which can include proper nutrition, enough sleep, and moderate physical activity.
  • Seek support. A strong support network of engaged partners, helpful family members, and good friends can buffer the ill effects of stress.
  • Engage in selfless activities like helping others.
  • Practise meditation, mild yoga, and mindfulness, These have been shown to reduce stress and create better pregnancy outcomes and physical health.
  • Spend time in a Peaceful Environment which makes mind and body relaxed.
  • Listen to music. These soothing music will calm the baby and the mother as well.
  • Read and listen to inspiring stories which can motivate the mother and can reduce the distress feeling.


A pregnant woman’s emotional state especially her stress, anxiety, and depression can change her child’s development with long-lasting consequences. Once the baby’s emotions have been crystallized in the mother’s womb, it sticks with the child and then the man all through his life and it is the mother who can build up positive emotions while the baby is in the womb.

Navya Gedela is an MSc student in Human Development and Family Studies at Punjab Agricultural University.


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