Stress, Pregnancy and the Infant

Women who are pregnant, especially if it is a first child, are usually extremely protective of the child, so much so that it can sometimes be hard to convince the mother-to-be that taking care of her need for emotional stability is as important as protecting the child from risk.

This makes it hard to explain the potential value of continuing effective treatment of depression into pregnancy.

Mothers can find plenty of information online about the possible risks of antidepressants taken during pregnancy, but it is harder to find information that captures the importance of keeping a mother out of a depressive episode during the pregnancy.

After all, aren’t we comparing temporary distress for the mother with potentially life long adverse effects on the child?

A study published in 2020 in the American Journal of Psychiatry gives solid biological evidence for the powerful effect of maternal distress on the infant.

In the study, researchers used several measures of what they called maternal resilience (measures which could also be thought of as measures of maternal distress since they included ratings of mood, anxiety, depression, and distress.

They then measured the length of the infant’s telomeres at birth and compared that length to the amount of distress (or resilience) the mother experienced during the pregnancy.

Let’s take a quick break to explain what telomeres are. They are “caps” added on to our genes that make cell reproduction possible. At the extreme, if telomeres are too short the individual dies. But they are also a measure of the health of the individual.

Telomere Length and Stress or Aging

Telomere length is is very strongly correlated with stress and health. They can be thought of as a way of measuring the biological age of a person. Things that increase aging, such as stress, insomnia, alcoholism, etcetera, speed up the process of telomere shortening.

The researchers found strong evidence that telomere length in the infant was determined by maternal distress.

Women with the top 25% measure of distress during pregnancy had children with significantly shorter telomeres. The children were born in objectively poorer health.

We hope that this study, which provides a clear objective measure of infant health at birth, and help mothers understand that taking care of themselves during pregnancy is not a luxury, at all.


Maternal Psychological Resilience During Pregnancy and Newborn Telomere Length: A Prospective Study
Glenn Verner, M.P.H., et al.
This study examined whether maternal psychological resilience buffers against stress in the context of fetal programming of offspring cellular aging. In a study population of 656 mother-child dyads, maternal resilience (level of positive emotions and social support accounting for stress) during pregnancy was positively associated with telomere length in the offspring at birth. These findings underscore the importance of mothers’ mental well-being during pregnancy to support children’s lifelong health.