Stress during pregnancy may affect child’s motor skills

By @iamkarlatecson on
Pregnant woman and child
A child touches her pregnant mother's stomach at the last stages of her pregnancy in Bordeaux April 28, 2010. A January 2010 report indicates that life expectancy and fertility of French women are among the highest in Europe. Reuters/Regis Duvignau

Mothers who experience more stressful events during their pregnancies may have children with poorer motor development, a new research claims. 

In the study that appeared in the journal Child Development, researchers at the University of Notre Dame Australia and the Telethon Kids Institute sought to establish the potential impact of maternal stress on children’s movement and coordination skills.

The investigation involved almost 3,000 Australian women who were surveyed when they were 18 months pregnant about stressful events during their pregnancies. These events included financial hardship, losing a close relative or friend, separation or divorce, marital problems, problems with the pregnancy, losing a job and moving residences. The mothers-to-be were asked to answer the same questionnaire when they were 34 weeks pregnant.

The participants’ children were assessed on their overall motor development coordination when they reached the ages of 10, 14 and 17. Using a 10-item movement test, the researchers measured children’s hand strength as well as their ability to put a finger on one’s nose, distance jump, walk along a line heel to toe and stand on one foot. The test also analysed the children’s ability to move small beads from one box to another, thread beads onto a rod, tap a finger over 10 seconds, turn a nut onto a bolt and slide a rod along a bar as slowly as possible. 

Children were divided into three groups: those born to mothers who experienced no stress during pregnancy; those born to mothers who experienced fewer than three stressful events during their pregnancies; and those born to mothers who experienced three or more stressful events during pregnancy.

The team found that children whose mothers experienced more stressful events during pregnancy scored lower on motor development across all three survey years. According to the researchers, this suggests an accumulative effect of stress on the developing fetal motor system. 

It was also noted that the greatest differences in motor development outcomes were among individuals whose mothers experienced no stress and those who experienced high stress, or more than three stressful events. The team also said that stressful events experienced in later pregnancy had more impact on children's motor development scores than those experienced earlier. This may be because the cerebellar cortex, a part of the brain that controls many motor outcomes, develops in the latter part of pregnancy, according to the researchers.

The team further said that children with low motor competence may face daily challenges in terms of fine and gross motor tasks such as writing, throwing and running. However, they said that this can be improved in some cases, with the help of intervention and support.

“Given our findings on the importance of mothers’ emotional and mental health on a wide range of developmental and health outcomes, programs aimed at detecting and reducing maternal stress during pregnancy may alert parents and health professionals to potential difficulties and improve the long-term outcomes for these children,” said Beth Hands, co-author of the study and a professor of human movement at the University of Notre Dame Australia

The approach applied in the study could be used to assess maternal stress throughout pregnancy, noted Tegan Grace, another co-author of the study. Pregnant women who are under stress could be counseled about cost-effective stress-reduction techniques such as gentle exercise, she added.

According to Pro Bono Australia, in 2014, a free and clinically based smartphone application called Mind the Bump was released, which aimed to ease stress during and after pregnancy, clearing the mother's mind and reducing the risk of developing a mental illness, such as depression or anxiety. According to its developer, beyondblue, up to one in 10 expectant mothers experience stress and depression during their pregnancy.

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