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Pandemic poses short- and long-term risks to babies, especially boys


Boosting toxic stress

Rates of depression and stress among pregnant women have increased dramatically during the pandemic.

That’s concerning because chronic stress can lead to inflammation, affecting the babies of both infected and uninfected women, Dr. Anagnostou said.

Studies consistently show that infants born to mothers who experience significant stress during pregnancy have higher rates of short- and long-term health damage – including heart defects and obesity – than babies born to women with less stress.

“We know that inflammation directly influences the way a baby’s brain develops,” said Elinor Sullivan, PhD, an associate professor in psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University, Portland.

Lockdowns, travel restrictions and physical distancing left many pregnant women without the support of family and friends. The stress of losing a loved one, a job, or a home further heightens the risks to moms and babies, said Dr. Sullivan, who is following children born during the pandemic for 5 years.

In research that has not yet been published, Dr. Sullivan found that babies of women who were pregnant during the pandemic showed more sadness and negative emotions in the first year of life, compared with infants of women who were pregnant before the pandemic.

The findings show the importance of helping and protecting pregnant people before and after delivery, said Dr. Sullivan, who conducted a separate study that found women who received more social support were less depressed.

Italian researchers are also studying the effect of maternal stress on infants’ behavior, as well as the way their genes are regulated.

Although stress-related inflammation doesn’t alter the structure of a baby’s genes, it can influence whether they’re turned on and off, said Livio Provenzi, PhD, a psychologist at the C. Mondino National Institute of Neurology Foundation in Pavia, Italy.

In Dr. Provenzi’s study of 163 mother-baby pairs he found differences in how genes that regulate the stress response were activated. Genes that help people respond to stress were more likely to be turned off in babies whose moms reported the most stress during pregnancy. The same moms also reported that their babies cried more and were fussier when they were 3 months old.

Researchers usually prefer to make in-person observations of babies as they interact with their mothers, Dr. Provenzi said. But because of the pandemic, Dr. Provenzi asked mothers to fill out questionnaires about infant behavior. He plans to observe mothers and babies in person when the children are 12 months old.

While vaccinating pregnant people is the best way to protect them and their fetuses from the virus, Dr. Anagnostou said, society needs to do more to preserve expectant mothers’ mental health.

“We can’t escape the fact that we’ve lived through 2 years of a pandemic,” Dr. Anagnostou said. “But we can think about opportunities for reducing the risk.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


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