Today, it is well documented that there are many factors that could potentially harm or negatively influence the development of an unborn child during the prenatal period (1). These risk factors include a mother’s age and her nutrition during pregnancy; if there was drug, alcohol, or cigarette use or abuse; as well, potential maternal diseases, such as AIDS or rubella, and environmental hazards, including water, food, and air pollution (Kail). These risk factors are often referred to as teratogens, which are defined as any agent that causes there to be a disruption to normal prenatal development (Kail). There is much evidence to suggest that there may be consequences to prenatal development from exposure and overexposure to teratogens (Kail?). Known deleterious effects from teratogens include an infant being born with low birth weight and prematurely; retarded growth and cognitive delay; as well as, impaired motor control, memory and verbal skills (Kail). However, there is little research on the possible adverse effects maternal psychological conditions and stress may have on an unborn child (1). Therefore, this paper will examine the existing research and literature surrounding the topic of maternal stress during pregnancy. **More specifically, this paper will define stress and discuss the human body’s biological reaction to stress, then it will outline the possible impact maternal stress may have on both prenatal and postnatal development, as well it will provide suggestions for reducing stress and promoting healthy prenatal development.
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Stress, for the purpose of this paper, will be defined as any challenge, either physical or psychological, that has the ability to threaten the internal homeostasis of an organism (2 little 3). What an individual may experience to be as a stressor may vary (1). A stressor could range from a traumatic life event, such as a death or divorce, to simple daily hassles, such as financial problems and relationship woes (1). Although the amount of stress response differs across individuals, the body’s biological reaction to stress is the same (1). Mulder et al. (2002) describe that when an individual is exposed to a stressor, the individual’s entire stress regulation system is activated; this means that numerous hormones are released into the blood in large amounts, which then reach the developing fetus (1). In one study, observations were taken of fetal behavior using an ultrasound (1). Fetal activity was monitored in two groups of mothers: one low anxiety, one high anxiety (1). It was noted that neonatal activity was much higher for fetuses of high anxiety mothers (1). Therefore, it is evident that maternal stress is linked to increased fetal activity within the womb (*). Because of critical periods that exist during prenatal development, it is essential to examine the impact maternal stress may have on both prenatal and postnatal development.
Mulder (2002) et al. note that although previous stress and prenatal research took place using and observing animals, recent evidence from well-conducted studies suggests that a direct relationship exists between maternal stress and certain pregnancy complications. There is evidence to suggest that high stress levels during pregnancy can lead to numerous pregnancy and birth complications such as miscarriage, low birth weight, pre-eclampsia, and preterm delivery (3). In regards to low birth weight, according to (1 little 25), the impact of maternal stress is similar to the magnitude of impact that smoking can have on a developing fetus. **
In addition to labour and birth complications that can arise due to maternal stress during pregnancy, the exposure to maternal stress prenatally may also contribute to lasting impacts on the infant’s health status, immune system, and neurocognitive development (2). As well, infants of women exposed to high levels of stress appear to be at risk for particular neurological and psychiatric disorders, including cerebral palsy and schizophrenia, and mental disorders affecting social, behavioural, and emotional development (4). King and Laplante (kail) performed a longitudinal study examining maternal stress during prenatal development and infant’s later development and ability. The participants were selected based on their location in Quebec, which had been exposed to an ice storm (Kail). The researchers found that the women in the study experienced a number of stressors because of the ice storm, including a loss of electricity, a loss of or damage to shelter, physical injury, and fear and anxiety over the safety of others (Kail). The participants were contacted a total of seven times between June 1998 and the child’s sixth birthday (Kail). King and Laplante noted that moderate to high maternal exposure to stress is associated with infant cognitive, language, and play deficits at age two (Kail). It is evidenet that research exists that outlines the potential negative impact that maternal stress can have on an infant during prenatal development.
In more recent years, efforts have been made to help reduce the amount of stress that a pregnant woman may have to cope with (1). The rationale behind reducing maternal stress is that “healthy mothers are more likely to have healthy pregnancies and deliver healthy babies” (McCain and Mustard, 1999). According to McCain, Mustard, and Shanker (2007) all levels of the Canadian government are beginning to invest in a variety of services, campaigns, and programs to help promote and assist women is having a healthy pregnancy, birth, and later child development. Some specific efforts to help reduce a pregnant woman’s stress include telephone calls or visits from a social worker, providing information regarding healthy pregnancy, and help to optimize support from other social environments (1). Moreover, Ruiz and Avant (2005) acknowledge the need for medical professionals to be aware of the potential adverse affects maternal stress can have on a growing child. For example, nurses should prescreen pregnant patients for excessive levels of stress (2). Although there are few reliable measures for determining prenatal stress, nurses are encouraged to ask questions and establish a good rapport with the patient in order to assess stress levels (2).
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Although little research exists on the topic of prenatal stress and later birth and infant development complications, there is enough evidence to suggest a link between maternal stress and prenatal development (2). Stress during pregnancy as a teratogen is a subject that is recently gaining more attention (2). Research exists that has noted the potential for birth and labour complications arising from maternal stress as well as the possibility of language, cognitive, and behavioural deficits in later years (1). More recently, research has shifted to focus on efforts to reduce or minimize stressors for women during pregnancy (2). **Researchers are advocating for the need for further research to be completed so that evidence based interventions for stress can be developed (2). Overall, research suggests that maternal stress does have an impact on the developing fetus and development in later years.
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