Women who experience stress and grief during pregnancy may be increasing the odds that their child might develop mental health illnesses once they grow into adulthood.

Scholars from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy and Research conducted a study looking into the impact of maternal stress on the overall health of the unborn child. Lead authors Petra Persson and Maya Rossin-Slater said that what seems to be a natural process of getting over a deceased loved one could actually lead to ADHD, anxiety, and depression.

"We find that prenatal exposure to the death of a maternal relative increases take-up of ADHD medications during childhood and anti-anxiety and depression medications in adulthood," Persson and Rossin-Slater wrote in the paper published for the American Economic Review.

Fight Or Flight

The study followed infants born between 1973 and 2011 whose mother lost a close relative during pregnancy. The researchers compared the data to those whose mother lost a relative after pregnancy. This data was analyzed in relation to records of mental health prescription drugs obtained by the study participants.

Analysis showed the impact of a loss of a loved one to maternal stress caused by factors such as a sudden change in household resources or composition.

The likelihood of purchasing prescription drugs for ADHD is 17.3 percent higher in women who experience pregnancy stress due to unemployment. Adults, who were born from a stressful pregnancy, have 9 percent and 5.5 percent increased the likelihood to take drugs for anxiety and depression.

Data presented by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that 70 percent of women surveyed from 2000 to 2010 reported an average of 1.81 stressful life events during the course of their pregnancy. The most common indicating factor of stress was financial particularly among younger, less educated, unmarried, and uninsured pregnant women.

A related study published in the Current Opinion in Psychiatry in 2012 noted the possible adverse outcomes of anxiety, depression, and stress in pregnancy for the mother and the unborn child.

"Chronic strain, exposure to racism, and depressive symptoms in mothers during pregnancy are associated with lower birth weight infants with consequences for infant development. These distinguishable risk factors and related pathways to distinct birth outcomes merit further investigation," said authors Christine Dunkel Schetter and Lynlee Tanner.

Breaking Barriers

The researchers cautioned that their findings were not intended to cause further difficulty among pregnant women but rather to raise awareness on the impact of stress-related emotions for the health of the mother and the child.

Instead, the purpose of the study is to reduce stress through socio-economic support from the family and community such as giving paid maternity leaves and other resources intended for poor families.

"Moreover, since poor families are more likely to experience stress than more advantaged ones, our results imply that stress-reducing policies that target low-income pregnant women could play a role in mitigating the persistence of socio-economic inequality across generations," the authors wrote.

The authors said that focusing on stress as the main factor for fetal problems opens a new realm of understanding. Previous literature has inclined more to malnutrition in establishing a relationship between fetal shock and adulthood.

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