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Pregnant? Stressed Out? Why That Could Actually Benefit Your Baby

A new study looks at how prenatal stress and depression may help your baby be more resilient later in life.

A new study looks at how prenatal stress and depression may help your baby be more resilient later in life. Shutterstock
It's about time we heard some good news about stress and depression during pregnancy! Because let's face it; growing a human is stressful, and it's depressing when you can't do all the things you're used to doing since, you know, you're growing a human. Well, according to a new study, prenatal stress and depression may actually offer protective benefits for baby.

In a study out of the University of Basel, and published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers looked at 100 mothers and their babies, both during and after pregnancy. They collected umbilical cord blood from 39 newborns and examined the stress hormone cortisol in moms' saliva samples. Mothers were also asked about stressful life events and their mental health.

What researchers wanted to understand was how increased maternal stress hormones, depressive symptoms, and general adversities during pregnancy affected which genes were turned on and off in a child. What they found was that stressors activated the oxytocin receptor gene, which is responsible for social behavior and stress adaptations. And amazingly, stress during pregnancy seemed to help babies develop adaptive behaviors, making them more resilient to future challenges.

It's worth noting the data were only analyzed in newborns, so researchers don't know what the long-term effects of stress during pregnancy are on a child. And previous studies have noted adverse health effects for children when mothers experience stress during pregnancy.

But this particular study offers hope for the future of treating both mental and physical illness. "Resilience research in this area is only at the beginning," explains Professor Gunther Meinlschmidt from the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Basel. "We need a comprehensive understanding of the psychological processes that allow humans to sustain long-term health even over generations despite adversities."

The good news for now is that if you are pregnant and stressed, your baby may be just fine, and could even be benefitting from it.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.