Stress in the womb and baby IQ

A 2009 study from researchers at Imperial College London shows that mothers under higher levels of stress put their babies at risk for developmental issues, including a lower level of cognitive development, or “baby IQ”, at 18 months.  From the Imperial College London press release of the study:

Visitors to the Exhibition will have the chance to play a game that shows how a mother’s stress can increase the heart rate of her unborn baby… when the mother is stressed, the placenta becomes less protective and the mother’s cortisol may have an effect on the fetus.

The Imperial researchers’ work has shown that maternal stress and anxiety can alter the development of the baby’s brain. This in turn can result in a greater risk of emotional problems such as anxiety or depression, behavioural problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and being considerably slower at learning. Some studies have even suggested that it may increase the likelihood of later violent or criminal behaviour. Their findings have suggested that the effects of stress during pregnancy can last many years, including into adolescence.

Professor Vivette Glover, lead researcher behind the exhibit from the Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology at Imperial College London, said: “We all know that if a mother smokes or drinks a lot of alcohol while pregnant it can affect her fetus. Our work has shown that other more subtle factors, such as her emotional state, can also have long -term effects on her child…

The researchers say expectant mothers should relax…

The researchers say that the stress hormone cortisol may be one way in which the fetus is affected by the mother’s anxiety during pregnancy. Usually the placenta protects the unborn baby from the mother’s cortisol, by producing an enzyme that breaks the hormone down. When the mother is very stressed, this enzyme works less well and lets her cortisol through the placenta. By studying the amount of cortisol in the amniotic fluid, the Imperial researchers’ latest study suggests that the higher the level of cortisol in the womb, the lower the toddler’s cognitive development or “baby IQ” at 18 months.

What you can do. As the study authors suggest, expectant mothers should just relax, and fathers should help them do this.

I suspect that a pre-maternity leave — or at least decreasing work-related responsibilities before maternity leave — also may alleviate some of this stress.

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4 Responses to Stress in the womb and baby IQ

  1. #1Mommy says:

    I was under an enormous amount of stress while I was pregnant. 22months ago I gave birth to a very healthy 7lb13oz girl.
    The only thing different about her so far is that she says “rea-row” instead of “lellow” like the other kids.
    She walked when she was 11months, spoke 2-3words to communicate by 15months and is now potty trained by 22 months (we still have some accidents, but it’s good enough to stop the pull ups)
    I hope my daughter is the exception.
    I hope the enzymes around the placenta she was in worked.
    I would hate for her to have to pay for my lack of ability to cope with being pregnant and in jail. Away from family and supports and unable to talk to them on the phone. (We settled on letters)
    We were losing our nana to cancer that smear as well.
    Being 2 provinces away really stressed me out.

    Thank you to the researchers who are finding issues and solutions to better our lives!!

    Thanks again

    • sgerrish says:

      Hi — Congratulations on your baby, and I hope that your situation has improved. I think that research in this area is really picking up, so stay tuned for more updates, and let me know if you learn about anything that I should post!

    • jonathan says:

      Hi. My mother was in jail when she was pregnant with me(she was in her early stages of her pregnancy). I am 25 years old now and I have an IQ score of 122+. But when I was a child I didn’t do so well in school because I would always lose focus. But what really boosted my brain power is that I spoke 4 different languages before I was 8, because of all the places that I lived. BTW I have a bachelors degree in chemistry. Word of advice do not wait till your daughter enters kindergarten to teach her the alphabets and basic arithmetic. You might have decreased her IQ(not intentionally) like my mother did to me but you can still help your daughter. She is fortunate to have a mother who cares about her intelligence. My mother, on the other hand, had no basic education so I was raised without having my brain stimulated. Learning Multiple languages will help her think in different ways. And please make education the focus of her life, of course, with a little play time at the park with her friends. Take her to museums or any kind of adventure to help stimulate her mind. There are endless ways to improve her mind. I hope your daughter grows up to be healthy, beautiful and intelligent.

      • sgerrish says:

        Thank you for your story, and I agree with your suggestions of ways to improve a child’s intelligence. Among the people I’ve known who speak many languages, they are invariably very smart — though it’s not clear whether this is because learning the language is beneficial, because learning languages demonstrates their capacity to learn, or because learning many languages is closely associated with being exposed to many ideas / cultures. Regardless, I think it’s a great idea to teach the kids as many languages as possible. (By the way, that is not my daughter — it’s a photo kindly provided by someone else with a beautiful baby!)

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