Grief does not carry over to the unborn child

January 9, 2017 - 06:35

Scientists find no indications in children that reflect on their mother’s grief during pregnancy.

Can a mother’s mental stress during pregnancy harm the foetus? Mothers, midwives and doctors have until now had little research-based information pointing one way or another. (Illustrative photo: Lex-art/Shutterstock/NTB scanpix)

Some women experience serious grief during pregnancy. The causes can be break-ups with their partners, deaths in the family or other calamities.

Grief or sorrow is a palpable stress factor for these women. For many this is compounded by the fear that their anguish can have an adverse effect on their baby.  

Norway has particularly good data about the population which can be useful for research on what happens to people over the years. Sociologists and others use the country’s long-term data for studies on issues that can have global applications.

Researchers at the Center for Empirical Labor Economics at the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH) in Bergen have analysed whether children are impacted in utero when one of their mother’s parents died during the pregnancy.

The researchers studied Norwegian children born between 1967 and 2009. 

No trace in the child

“When we followed up the children of women who lost one of their parents during the pregnancy all the way to adulthood we found no difference between these kids and other children,” says Professor Kjell G. Salvanes at NHH.

The researchers have compared several results which would give indications of cognitive abilities, including educational records. They also looked at the incomes these children earn as adults. 

“We cannot see that serious mental stress during a pregnancy has an impact on the child’s education or achievements in the job market,” says Salvanes.

Summing up their work, the researchers in Bergen say that serious stress experienced by a pregnant mother has no major consequences for the child.

Risk at birth

That said, the researchers did find one negative effect – a higher risk of a stillbirth.

After dropping in frequency for years the risk of a stillbirth is very low in Norway. Statistics Norway informs that 0.27 percent of all births in 2015 were stillborn.

The researchers at NHH cannot explain how serious stress experiences can give a slightly higher statistical chance of stillbirths.

They speculated as to whether more pregnant women might fall for the temptation to smoke tobacco after experiencing severe stress. Or maybe those who were smoking started smoking more.

There is no solid evidence supporting such hypotheses, however.

The researchers only had data about the connection between smoking and pregnancies in Norway stretching back to 1998. In the nearly two decades of these particular statistics, nothing has confirmed that grief has had an effect on the possible smoking habits of pregnant women.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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Translated by
Glenn Ostling