How a Stressed-out Pregnancy Can Lead to Childhood Anxiety

baby anxietyA stressed-out pregnant mommy may give birth to an equally stressed-out baby, or at least one more prone to ADHD, depression and anxiety – even as an adult. Eek! is right. While past research had found high stress during pregnancy can lead to anxious behavior for offspring down the line, two more recent studies may have actually pinpointed why this is the case.

One blamed licorice, at least in part. The other blamed low levels of a certain growth factor hormone.

Blaming the Licorice

When you’re stressed out, your body spews out high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Research found that an enzyme in the mother’s placenta typically serves as a barrier that protects her unborn child from all those stress hormones. But if that protective barrier is faulty, the developing child can be exposed to the nasty stress hormones. This can result in a low birth weight, followed later by depression and anxiety.

The research, which came out of the University of Edinburgh’s Queen’s Medical Research Institute, found one of the causes of a faulty barrier is high amounts of licorice, one of the foods some women crave during pregnancy.

“The findings may help to explain why some children grow up less able to deal with stress and anxiety than others,” according to an article in the Telegraph.

Additional research that backed up the faulty barrier theory came from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Here researchers theorized that built-up stress hormones that are not stopped by a protective barrier in the womb seep into the child’s brain, where it affects which genes are switched on, switched off, or function throughout the child’s life. While this may have been helpful somewhere back in caveman days, the Telegraph explains:

“…in the modern world it appears to lead to conditions such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and leave children more anxious.”

Weizmann Institute researchers tested the theory by examining the effects of licorice on rats, which subsequently gave birth to offspring that exhibited anxious behavior. Anxious offspring were also produced by mice that were lacking the protective enzyme.

The study then turned its attention to Finnish women, many of whom tend to eat lots of licorice. Children born to women who ate one bag of licorice per day were compared to children whose mothers ate no licorice. The licorice-eating mothers tended to give birth a few days earlier and, by the time their children reached the age of 8, the children had notably higher rates of anxious behaviors and attention deficits.

The detrimental effects of the stress appeared to be most impactful in later stages of pregnancy.

Blaming the Growth Factor Hormone (or Lack Thereof)

Anxiety in adults has also been linked to another factor from way back in the womb, that of low levels of a hormone known as Insulin-like growth factor 2. The hormone is known for helping to ensure a developing fetus gets enough nutrients to grow properly. Eating licorice while pregnant is not necessarily behind this one, but pregnancies beset with weight loss and high stress seem to be.

“This is the first example of what we have termed ‘placental-programming’ of adult behavior,” the Telegraph quoted study co-author Dr. Trevor Humby.

This research, which came out of Cardiff University and was published in the journal Nature Communications, checked out pregnant mice that were unable to produce adequate amounts of Insulin-like growth factor 2. Once their offspring reached adult mouse stage, they showed higher-than-normal levels of anxiety during maze tests and when subjected to new environments.

Enjoying a Stress-Free Pregnancy

OK, a stress-free pregnancy may be one of those things you can only fantasize about. But even if your pregnancy is not totally stress free, a host of tips from can at least help you keep your stress and anxiety levels in check.

  • Say NO! As much as you may enjoy the thought of being Wonder Woman mixed with Super Mom-to-Be, the results of attempting such a feat can be far less enjoyable. Flex your skills at saying no, whether it’s to extra duties at work, in the neighborhood or around the home. Ask for help if you need it and schedule one main priority on your to-do list: slowing down.
  • Take time for you. Once you learn to ask for help, you may be amazed at how readily folks jump in to help. Don’t be afraid to cash in on your vacation days or sick days, either. Pregnancy is a great time to use them. Use the extra time you gain for a little self-pampering – or a lot of self-pampering. Put your feet up. Nap. Read a book or those trashy tabloids. Listen to soothing music with cucumber slices on your eyelids. Do whatever you need to do to simply relax.
  • Engage in exercise. Now is not a great time to run a marathon, but it is a wonderful one to take advantage of exercises that invigorate, restore or relax. Stay active with regular walking or swimming session. Relax with breathing exercises, yoga or a series of gentle stretches that unwind both your body and your mind.
  • Get extra sleep. Even if you can’t dive into an afternoon nap, try going to be a bit earlier or sleeping in a bit later. Your body will thank you for all the quality sleep you can give it.
  • Eat right. Don’t let those trash y tabloids fool you into thinking it’s A-OK to pile on junkfood just because certain celebrities may have done so. Maintain a healthy eating plan that provides you with adequate calories and nutrition to fuel a growing baby.

If you still feel like you’re teetering near a breaking point, reach out to other expectant mothers, join a support group or find a family member, friend or even a therapist to talk to. Sometimes simply talking about what’s stressing you out is enough to provide relief. And you want all the relief you can get for your own (and your baby’s) peace of mind.


Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet Photography via Compfight cc