Skip to main content
May 6, 2019

Effects of Maternal Stress Detected in 2-Month-Olds

Kids say the darnedest things, even before they can speak.

In a recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics, for the first time, the brains of 2-month-olds told the effects of their mothers’ stress by way of electroencephalography readings.

Researchers were able to see different patterns in brain activity for those with mothers who were more stressed versus those of mothers who were not.

Even more telling, brains with increased maternal stress showed signs of delayed development compared to infants of mothers who reported low stress.

It may be no surprise.

We know by now that a mother’s wellbeing has direct effects on her children, but for the first time, the use of the EEG meter proved an apt tool in uncovering these effects very early in life.

“Is it meaningful long term is something we’re following up on. Previously we’ve only seen this among infants 6 months and older, and it’s remarkable that this early in life there are differences in neural activity under perceived stress,” said Dr. Barbara L. Thompson, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Human Development at the University of Michigan and one of the study’s authors.

That makes it even more important to have early intervention that may buffer the effects of maternal stress, often a pathway to some early Adverse Childhood Experiences or “ACEs”.

Extensive research has shown that exposure to ACEs can delay brain development and impact later learning and behavior. The more ACEs a child is exposed to, the more they’re at risk of developing depression, alcoholism, and chronic disease later on.

In the study, the 70 mothers who participated filled out surveys with questions like, “In the last month, how many times have you been upset?” and “How often have you felt difficulties were piling up so high you could not overcome them?”

“We didn’t ask for specific stressors, but more about her perception of how stressed she’s been,” Thompson said.

Another finding was that maternal education attainment, such as high school graduation, may serve as a buffer against the stress effect.

Babies whose mothers were under stress but had completed high school or had some college education exhibited EEG activity similar to mothers who did not report being stressed.

Thompson insisted that this does not mean it’s a mother’s fault, but hopes this leads to thinking about ways “we can boost her up and create more opportunities for her to pursue an education,” she said.

“These infants exist in a family. And it’s the whole unit that’s important for the development of the child,” she added.

The study is ongoing, and the mothers and their infants will be revisited at 6, 9, 12, and 24 months of age to see if the changes in brain development are long-lasting, or if the infants catch up over time.

“I’m most hopeful that this will give us some insight allowing us to identify those infants that could use the most supports and potentially mitigate the long-term consequences of early toxic stressors,” Thompson said.

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.

Share this post