New UK research has found that if a woman experience stress before or during their pregnancy her baby's brain development could be affected.
Carried out by researchers from King's College London, the new study looked at 251 premature babies and their mothers to investigate for the first time the relationship between maternal stress and a child's brain development.
The mothers of the babies were asked to complete a questionnaire which asked them about their experiences of stressful events. These events ranged from everyday stress, such as moving house or taking an exam, to more severe stress such as bereavement, separation or divorce.
Based on their answers the mothers were given a score, which indicated the severity of their stress. Each of the babies underwent brain magnetic resonance imaging to assess their brain development, including a specific medical imaging technique called diffusion tensor imaging which allowed the researchers to look at the structure of the brain's white matter.
The findings, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, showed that babies whose mothers experienced more stress during the prenatal period showed impaired development of the white matter tract, called the uncinate fasciculus. Previous research has found that adults with anxiety disorders can also show changes in this tract.
The researchers say the findings highlight the need to ask expectant mothers about their stress levels and provide necessary support.
"It is not diagnosed as often as it should be during pregnancy and we are trying to emphasize that maternal mental health during pregnancy can impact the baby's brain development which may impact on their outcomes later in life," said lead author Alexandra Lautarescu. "No one is asking these women about stress and hence they don't receive any support.
"Antenatal services need to be aware that it is important to think about stress of the moms and we need to have some kind of support there for the moms who identify that they are stressed. If we try to help these women either during the pregnancy or in the early post-natal period with some sort of intervention this will not only help the mother, but may also prevent impaired brain development in the baby and improve their outcomes overall."
The team added that further studies are now needed to better understand whether the changes in the brain development of babies could lead to adverse health outcomes later in life.