CINCINNATI — A landmark new study on how stress affects pregnant mothers had its birth here in Ohio after three years of work.

What You Need To Know

  • A University of Cincinnati College of Medicine study shows stress during pregnancy can adversely affect the baby

  • Researchers tracked more than 5,000 pregnant women over 3.5 years

  • Dr. Anna Ruehlmann led the story that included 41 co-authors from across the globe

  • Some adverse effects on the fetus caused by stress can be reversed 

A researcher at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine spent more than three years leading a team of scientists from around the world, in hopes it leads to healthier babies.

“We have 41 co-authors from across the globe that participated in this study,” said Dr. Anna Ruehlmann, a postdoctoral fellow at UC. “We worked with  12 different groups of pregnant moms which totaled almost 5500 of them. So it is a major undertaking and a big big project so we’re just really proud that we were able to do it here, centered in Cincinnati.”

Ruehlmann and her team spent more than three years on the study and their conclusions stress the importance of a calm pregnancy, and avoiding stress.

“What we found was, as stress accumulates during pregnancy, with some very specific types of life stress, such as abuse or death of a family member or friend that the baby’s DNA is epigenetically modified so it’s chemically affected by mom’s stress during pregnancy,” Ruehlmann said.  

The stress can turn off or mutate genes needed to help Mom’s child stay healthy physically and mentally.

“A chemical modification or change that happens to someone’s DNA doesn’t change the sequence of your DNA,” she said. “However, it does add a chemical component to your DNA in specific places.”

Their study was the first to look at a wide variety of ways DNA and genes can be affected.

“Maternal stress during pregnancy has many different implications for the developing fetus such as cardiac, such as immunologic, it can impact their behavior as they grow up, their emotions, and even their cognition,” Ruehlmann said.

She said sometimes, mutations can be reversed, so being aware of how stress can affect the fetus is important for pregnant mothers and their doctors.

“Mom’s stress during pregnancy has a biological effect on the developing fetus,” she said.

The study found that types of stress affect the fetus in different ways.

“War or famine or very traumatic types of stress affect the fetus differently than if mom has anxiety or depression or some of the things we studied like abuse or death of a family member,” Ruehlmann said. 

Her findings hit close to home. She wonders if stress in her own life during pregnancy affected her daughter.

“As a mom of a 13-year-old who has anxiety, it, of course, sends you down the path of ‘How did my pregnancy go and how did that affect her, possibly?’” Ruehlmann said. “During my pregnancy, I suffered the death of a very close friend, personal issues, stressors that were happening. And it’s very hard not to think about the link with those two and I started thinking, ‘How could I have managed that better knowing what I know now?’”   

Ruehlmann and her team want pregnant moms and their families to be aware of how important it is to be in a supportive, calm environment during pregnancy.

“Support goes a lot further than you think during pregnancy,” she said. “Community and maternal health matters for everybody because it affects everybody in some way down the road.”