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MATERNAL STRESS AND ITS ROLE IN CHILDREN DEVELOPMENT

Maternal Stress and Its Role in Children Development Evelyn H. Rodriguez Psychopathology, Section 1 March 1, 2011 Ave Maria University

MATERNAL STRESS AND ITS ROLE IN CHILDREN DEVELOPMENT

Abstract
Some research studies have shown that children whose mothers have experienced stress during pregnancy, chiefly the first trimester are vulnerable to suffer the same stress or experience either beneficial or maladaptive responses to it. This paper will look at the relationship between maternal stress and how it is passed to children. The supporters of the biological model say that some neurotransmitters passed down to children during pregnancy are responsible. In contrast, behavioral theorists believe that children become secondary victims as they idealize some types of behaviors. This paper will examine the psychological literature on this topic, relating it to five research articles current in the field as well as the limitations of those studies.

MATERNAL STRESS AND ITS ROLE IN CHILDREN DEVELOPMENT

Maternal Stress and Its Role in Children Development


Throughout the years the notion that feelings and experiences of women during pregnancy affect the baby has been a common cultural belief. However, this notion has departed from being just a cultural belief to become a subject of scientific investigation nowadays. According to the current research about the topic, some possible results from maternal distress on children are listed and range from abrupt and disastrous (e.g. miscarriage) to more gradual and long term (e.g. low birth weight, developmental delay or disorders). In order to comprehend how is it possible that prenatal maternal stress and maternal stress in general can affect children in later development behavioral, cognitive, and social this paper discusses the current research on each of these areas of development among mothers and children. It is obvious that physical development of the fetus can be altered (indeed, this happens when women are exposed to teratogens); but, is it the same for the psychological development? How is it possible that the psychological distress faced by the mother would be passed to the child, when there are not direct neural connections between them? In order to affect the child the psychological distress must be translated into physiological effects; effects able to cross the placenta. Current research explains that there are three methods to accomplish this: 1) changes in maternal behavior such as those induced by substance abuse, 2) changes in blood pressure, when the mother faces irregular blood pressure, especially low, the child is at risk of oxygen and nutrients deprivation which further might lead to physical abnormalities of the nervous system; and 3) transport of stress-related neurotransmitters and hormones in the bloodstream throughout the placenta (DiPietro, 2004). The stress-related neurohormones, such as cortisol and cortiscoterone, are required for a normal development of the child and the birth process. Nevertheless, even a slight variation in

MATERNAL STRESS AND ITS ROLE IN CHILDREN DEVELOPMENT

the normal levels of these, especially during the first trimester of pregnancy, can cause many effects on the childs stress nervous system response (DiPietro, 2004). Animal research on the topic has come to be the most convincing to show a link between maternal psychological condition and offsprings later development. Pregnant laboratory animals are easily induced to stressful situations which later end up causing effects on offspring. The results found that these [effects] include deficits in motor development, learning behavior, and the ability to cope effectively in stressful situations (DiPietro, p.71). Nonetheless, the specific levels at which cortisol induces maladaptive responses to stress are unknown. Keenan, Grace, and Gunthorpe (2003) made a study among neonates, whose mothers went through mild or severe stress during pregnancy, in which they measured the relationship between cortisol and behavioral and emotional functioning. This study aimed to observe whether a decrease or an increase in cortisol levels would end up into a maladaptive response to stress. The babies saliva was the indicator to measure cortisol. Thus, it was collected before and 20 and 45 min after the neonates (48 hours old) had been exposed to a stressor. This pattern of measurements allowed Keenan et. al.(2003) to deduce the role of cortisol in stressful situations as well as the ability of the neonates to cope with stress. Some of the babies who showed higher distress and cortisol levels remained stressed for longer periods of time in comparison to those who were low-distressed and had lower cortisol levels; but, their cortisol levels returned to normal in a similar way as the low-distresseds did. Thus, cortisol was proved to set distress but not to be latent along the coping process (Keenan et. al., 2003). This finding may be attributed to the stress exposure suffered prenatally. It may be that neonates born from severe stressed mothers were used to distress but unable to cope with it.

MATERNAL STRESS AND ITS ROLE IN CHILDREN DEVELOPMENT

On the other hand, another area of development that can be affected by maternal stress is the cognitive one. Cooksey (1997) focused her study on children whose mothers were either on their teens or early 20s and were stressed about their marital status along their pregnancy and after it. The study does not show a specific relation of maternal stress to pregnancy but definitely from birth to later development on children. Mothers marital histories have shown to affect children cognitive abilities and performance at school. Cooksey (1997) studied how the mothers cognitive achievement and self-esteem at the time of birth and during the early years of children development, which usually tend to be poor for her sample, became the capital from which children fed and modeled for the construction of their own personalities. Because mothers who think positivity about themselves and believe in their own capabilities are more likely to encourage independence and self-confidence in their own children (Menaghan & Parcel, 1991 as stated in Cooksey); it is obvious that young mothers who are stressed about their marital situation would not enhance their children development as good as they should. However, this is not always the case; indeed, some children obtain higher scores as a way to avoid the repetition of their mothers errors. In other words, as some children see their mothers examples they try to deviate from that model and achieve success a good result from maternal stress. Similarly, Hay and Pawlby (2003) tested whether childrens prosocial behavior was positively or negatively related to childrens and mothers psychological problems. In particular maternal depression and stress are associated with adverse family climates and less optimal patterns of parent-child interaction and under these conditions childrens prosocial development may not advance normally (Hay and Pawlby, 2003). Prosocial development is disrupted as maternal depression and stress get in the way of sensitive care and authoritative parenting;

MATERNAL STRESS AND ITS ROLE IN CHILDREN DEVELOPMENT

leading to children with more psychological problems and less prosocial behavior. As, Dr. Murray and his wife Alicia have found on his own studies of children suffering from PTSD: In our own practices Alicia and I have noticed that women whose mothers were the victims of sexual abuse, for example, were likely to manifest all the signs of a sexual abuse survivor themselves (Murray, 2008). Again, children born from distressed mothers are vulnerable to the same stress due to the exposure of their mothers traumatic stories and their trauma-related acquired behavioral patterns through childhood idealization of certain types of behavior (Murray, 2008). Discussion In 2004, DiPietro discussed how stress can be either beneficial or detrimental for children development. This statement has been supported by other researches as the one by Cooksey (1997). The problem is that science still does not know what are the causes and ways in which stress stops being an adaptive response and becomes maladaptive. Moreover, the relationship between prenatal maternal stress and later children development lacks of sufficient evidence. The studies done at the time are limited to animals and cannot be generalized to humans due to many causes. First, there are many physiological differences in pregnancy among species. Second, researchers can control the conditions after birth in animals but not in humans. Usually, mothers who are depressed or stressed before and during pregnancy would continue to be so after giving birth. Therefore, a distinction between the social factors involved in raisin up children must be done from the psychophysiological factors (e.g. stress-related neuro hormones) passed down biologically through pregnancy. Finally, the stress to which pregnant animals are exposed is different from the one experienced by pregnant women. Pregnant animals only face external stressors that are measured in their duration, frequency and intensity (DiPietro, 2004). In contrast, women can be stressed due to both external (e.g. economic or marital situation, lack of

MATERNAL STRESS AND ITS ROLE IN CHILDREN DEVELOPMENT

social support, etc.) and internal (e.g. psychological disorders, personality) stressors. Thus, it seems like the association between prenatal maternal stress and later development of children, is a result from biology itself and/or from child-rearing practices related to mothers temperament and behavior. In addition to the limitations of animal studies mentioned on DiPietro (2004), Keenan et al. (2003) found out that cortisol levels passed down to children does play a role in stress, but the extent to which cortisol affects the children stress nervous system is still unclear. It is possible that the ability of the neonates to cope with stress relates to how they coped with it inside the uterus. Keenan et al. (2003) stated that the duration of the onset of stress varied among children; children with higher levels of stress remained stressed longer. Thus, if their mothers were under severe stress along the whole gestation period, it could be that once the stress response is onset children will remain stressed as this is what they are used to from pregnancy. However, instead of getting only bad results from child-rearing practices related to mothers stress and temperament, Cooksey (1997) showed that even when the marital status influences children development in a bad way; it can also make the children to desire to deviated themselves from that situation as they aspire not to commit the same errors but to achieve success in their lives. In summary, in order to gain a complete understanding of the relationship between maternal stress during pregnancy and children later development; studies should be directed to measure the stress to which both mother and child are exposed during pregnancy and after birth. Studies should follow the levels of stress and the implication of biology on them, as well as the social factors influencing children development and ability to cope with stress.

MATERNAL STRESS AND ITS ROLE IN CHILDREN DEVELOPMENT

References Cooksey, Elizabeth C. "Consequences of Young Mothers' Marital Histories for Children's Cognitive Development." National Council on Family Relations 59.02 May (1997): 24561. JSTOR. Web. 25 Feb. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/353468>. DiPietro, Janet A. "The Role of Prenatal Maternal Stress in Child Development." Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of Association for Psychological Science 13.2 Apr. (2004): 71-74. JSTOR. Web. 24 Feb. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20182913>. Hay, Dale, and Susan Pawlbly. "Prosocial Development in Relation to Children's and Mothers' Psychological Problems."Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the Society for Research in Child Development 74.5 Sept. (2003): 1314-27. JSTOR. Web. 25 Feb. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3696180>. Keenan, Kate, Desia Grace, and Dana Gunthorpe. "Examining Stress Reactivity in Neonates: Relations between Cortisol and Behavior." Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the Society for Research in Child Development 74.6 Nov. (2003): 1930-42.JSTOR. Web. 27 Feb. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3696313>.
Murray, Bob. "PTSD and Childhood Trauma." Uplift Program. Ed. Bob Murray and Alicia Fortinberry. N.p., 26 Mar. 2008. Web. 27 Feb. 2011. <http://www.upliftprogram.com/article_ptsd.html>