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Does stress cause birth defects? Although stress is very common, research about its potential impact in pregnancy poses significant challenges. Individuals experience and report stress differently. And its physical effects are not yet well understood.

STRESSFUL LIFE EVENTS RAISE RISK

We asked over 2000 mothers about 3 stressful life events occurring around conception or in early pregnancy: death, divorce/separation and job loss.

bullet At least 1 major event was reported by
27% of the mothers whose babies did
not have birth defects.
bullet Stressful life events were 30%-50%
more common among mothers whose
babies had any of the birth defects
studied: oral clefts, heart, neural tube
and limb defects.
bullet The difference was not driven by other known risk factors for birth defects such as obesity, smoking or binge drinking.
bullet The study did not examine possible lifestyle changes or coping behaviors that may have influenced risk.
bullet Because this study looked at only 3 stressful life events, results cannot be generalized to stress in other situationswhether from a different major event, chronic stress or the stress of daily life.

HOW MIGHT STRESSFUL LIFE EVENTS BE LINKED TO BIRTH DEFECTS?

At least 2 other population-based studies to date have linked birth defects and major stressful life events. Although the ways stressful life events might influence prenatal development are not yet well understood, they may include:

bullet Physical effects. Stress is known to cause physiological changes which may alter blood flow to the uterus.
bullet Behavior changes. Stressful life events may reduce healthy activities such as eating a nutritious diet or taking multivitamins. Stress may also trigger risk-raising behaviors like cigarette smoking or binge drinking.
bullet Shared underlying cause. Stressful life events may be a marker for other risk factors, rather than being directly linked to birth defects risk. For example, low socioeconomic statusa risk factor for some birth defectsmay predispose an individual to life events such as job loss.

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STRESS VERY COMMON IN PREGNANCY

Stressful life events were very common. Around conception, among mothers who had normal infants:

bullet 12% had someone close die.
bullet 14% separated or divorced, or had someone close to them experience these changes.
bullet 8% of mothers or people close to them lost jobs.


SHOULD WOMEN BE CONCERNED ABOUT THE EFFECTS OF STRESS?

Pregnant women experiencing disruptive life changes should keep these points in mind:

bullet Stressful life events are very commonoccurring in more than 1/4 of pregnanciesyet most women who experience these events deliver babies without birth defects.
bullet We don't yet know why birth defects and stress are associated.
bullet While stressful life factors may be uncontrollable, women can reduce birth defects risk—for example, by taking vitamin supplements containing folic acid and avoiding harmful behaviors like smoking or drinking.

 



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