Monday, March 22, 2010

Prenatal Stress & Early Childhood Development

In an article linked to by the APA, University of Rochester Medical Center psychologists researched the long term effects of a mother-to-be's stress level on her unborn child. It was found that high levels of cortisol, the hormone released in stressful situations, can lead to developmental disorders such as short attention span and difficulties with problem-solving. There is also a correlation between high levels of cortisol during pregnancy and a baby being insecurely attached, as we learned about in the Ainsworth study, when the experiments were conducted around 17 months of age. While this half of the study alone would make it seem that an expecting mother must abstain from working, especially in higher stress situations, or be treated like some sort of fragile piece of china, the study found that even if high cortisol levels were present during gestation, that if the mother and child develop a securely attached relationship--which is still entirely feasible, even with high cortisol levels--all complications stemming from a high-stress pregnancy on the child disappear. They do not show the same delays in language, problem solving, or attention that children that are insecurely attached display. The question becomes then, is it the mother's stress-level or her attachment to her child that is more important? One can infer that if a mother has high stress levels during pregnancy, perhaps because she works a stressful job--say she is a lawyer--that once her child is born, she will have to quickly return to the workplace, perhaps not nurturing her child to the full extent, thus resulting in an insecure relationship. This is a case of physiological and psychological factors working together. It is near impossible to separate them and say THIS is the cause, or THAT is the cause, but rather, a complicated interplay of factors that can effect the child for the rest of his/her life.

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