It is common for society to trivialize stress and verbal abuse, especially with regards to women.
Many who have suffered mental illnesses and chronic pain know firsthand how damaging stress can be on the body. For anyone who has been abused, its known that verbal abuse is just as detrimental to a person’s wellbeing as physical or sexual abuse can be. The greater debate, however, lies in the assumption that these experiences are so minor that they simply cannot affect or traumatize a developing baby.
Gabriel Guyton, a professor and researcher at Bank Street College of Education in New York City, explains how these uncontrollable factors can in fact impact a developing baby.
“Pregnant people have many things they can control about the development of the unborn baby growing in their belly (like the foods they eat or whether or not they drink alcohol),” explains Guyton in an email to HelloFlo. “They may not be able to control the pollution in the air or the stress of cultural racism on their body, and therefore their baby’s body.”
Guyton makes a point that ways to reduce abuse-related stress on the mother are not limited to leaving abusive interpersonal relationships. Parents of marginalized identities can experience an enormous amount of stress from socioeconomic status, racism, misogyny, transphobia, fatphobia and ableism.
Long-term stressful situations of any kind can affect the type of hormones women produce, in turn affecting the development of developing children. Guyton tells HelloFlo, “When people feel stressed, they produce cortisol. This hormone is not good or bad. For example, cortisol is important in a baby’s lung development, but developing too much cortisol can be a problem.”
The impact of a surplus of cortisol in the body extends beyond physical development for babies.
“Dr. Elysia Davis out of Denver found too much cortisol has been connected to babies who end up being more sensitive to stress and more anxious than other children,” states Guyton.
According to a new study by the University of Zurich in Switzerland, long-term stress on mothers can also change the metabolism in the placenta, which influences the growth of the unborn child.
The placenta changes can also be attributed to an increase in the production of cortisol during a pregnancy.
“An excessive acceleration of growth may occur at the expense of the proper maturation of the organs,” Dr. Ulrike Ehlert of the University of Zurich told Psych Central.
The science behind the impacts stress — especially the financial kind — can have on unborn children is just one more reason why Guyton believes that mental health needs to be a priority during pregnancy.
“There has been more and more research to support the need to support pregnant people with their physical and mental health,” she tells HelloFlo. “We screen pregnant people for gestational diabetes, but are less likely to screen pregnant people for depressions and trauma.”
She goes on to stress the importance of healthy relationships, especially when you’re carrying a child.
“Being in a relationship that is hurting you is not healthy for you or your unborn baby,” she writes. “As we understand more about infants and the effects of trauma on development, we can not pretend trauma is not affecting tiny little babies inside the womb and out.”