How Stress in Pregnancy Affects the Child & What Parents Can Do

Dawn Davenport


Stress and Pregnancy

Stress can affect a pregnancy and baby. How to create a good environment for a child.

Yesterday,  in her guest post on this blog, Dr. Marcy Axness laid the foundation of what parents can do to help their children develop their full potential through the science of attachment neurobiology and the power of parents setting an example.  In today’s guest post, she applies this information more specifically to adoptive families and women who are pregnant after infertility treatment. Our children are often conceived and grown for nine months in an environment of high stress.  What does this beginning mean for them and what can we do to help.

Where’s Your Head At?

All this fascinating neurobiology of attachment, including the Mommy Mind Meld, is why the “biggest bang” intervention you can make in your parenting skill set (i.e., one thing you can do that yields maximum benefit across multiple dimensions of your and your child’s wellbeing) is to begin cultivating your inner life, and mastery over the flow of your own thoughts. Meditation, yoga, mindfulness, contemplative prayer, journaling — these are all avenues by which to do this.

Engaging in a practice of gratitude is also a big-bang parenting tool, beginning as early as possible. Why? The fields of positive psychology and psychoneuroimmunology (mind-body science) have revealed gratitude as one of the most surefire ways to amp up your physical and emotional wellbeing. And epigenetics (which refers to the potent influence we have on whether certain genes we carry are expressed or not) shows us that we have far more power over our own selves and our own destinies than we ever before imagined. And a good deal of that power comes through the influence of our attitudes, our feelings and our perceptions. Here’s a handy list of seven ways to rewire a negative mindset and move toward more gratitude at any time!

Nature’s Own Head Start Program

The reflection of our own inner lives in our children doesn’t wait till the mommy mind meld in infancy to begin. Before we even conceive, we are laying the foundation for either optimal growth mode or defense / protection mode in our children, through our own inner ecology — by which Nature is already assessing if conditions are favorable for supporting new life.

Nature is looking for her best possible shot at a healthy new member of the species, and her intelligence (working 24/7 within each of your cells and organs) assuredly registers toxins, sub-par nutrition and severe stress as cues that the environment could be unfriendly for a new organism. The ongoing “growth or protection” assessment may come down on the side of “don’t grow” — thus, don’t procreate, don’t be able to conceive. (For example, when a woman’s percentage of body fat drops below about 22 percent, she stops ovulating and menstruating. Her bodymind’s intelligence perceives that a baby conceived in such circumstances could easily suffer malnutrition.)

Pregnancy continues what I call Nature’s Head Start Program (i.e., all of prenatal development), when a baby’s organs and tissues, including the lifelong foundations of basic brain infrastructure, develop in direct response to lessons they receive about the world — lessons that come from Mom’s diet, her behavior and her state of mind.

It is Nature’s job to create organisms as well-suited as possible to their current environment, so the unceasing question asked by the baby in the womb — which is answered chemically and energetically via the mother’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors (and of course nutrition) — is, What kind of world am I coming into, Mommy, through your eyes? Chronic, unremitting stress teaches the baby via Mom’s biochemistry that it’s a dangerous world out there, and foundational brain circuitry wires up to thrive in a dangerous world.

What Does This Mean For Adoptive Families?

This is where some of the potent adoption implications come into the equation. Research tells us clearly that babies prepare themselves to adapt to the world “taught” to them in the womb. It is the rare adoption-bound pregnancy that isn’t marked by significant stress: the myriad decision-making challenges, the possible lack of practical resources and support, the internal conflicts that are natural within a mother carrying a baby she is not prepared to parent, and so much else. It’s nobody’s fault, just people being imperfectly human, but the infant bound for a loving, happy, secure adoptive home may simply not have the neural equipment to take that in that love and security… at least at the beginning!

Your adopted infant’s brain stem may have been organizing around a maternal heartbeat that oriented him to chaos rather than to serenity — and so he may have a difficult time receiving your loving affection, your calm, your embrace. Bruce Perry explains this so well here. If your infant startles easily, seems hyperreactive, cries a lot — or the converse, seems “zoned out” — is hard to soothe and settle, this can help you understand why.

And if you have adopted an older child who as an infant was in institutionalized care, those prenatal lessons about relational scarcity persisted into the critical early months when we learn foundational lessons about who we are, what the world is like, how we fit into it, and what love is.

For both infants and older children, despite all the love we want to give them, they may have a hard time accepting it. It feels foreign, it feels scary. On very deep levels, adoptees may unconsciously feel that it’s too dangerous to love and be loved, authentically and deeply; how can they trust that they won’t be hurt or abandoned again?[i]

This isn’t about blame or guilt, but about the empowerment that comes with understanding. It’s never too late to harness neuroplasticity! The idea is to rewire your child’s most basic neural circuitry to adapt to new environmental information: the world is safe and secure. So you want to always be a safe haven, a source of security rather than threat of any kind.

The important thing for adoptive parents to keep in mind — if a baby isn’t responding to your affection, if a toddler or preschooler is pushing you away — is to not take it personally! This compounds the child’s distress and trauma, rather than ameliorating it. Now, this can be a challenge indeed. For all but a small percentage, the road leading up to adoption is invariably a painful one for parents, marked by many losses:  the children they might have had, but for infertility; the child or children they lost through miscarriage, stillbirth, or death; and sometimes even pieces of themselves feel chipped away — their feelings of competence, wholeness, worthiness, and so many other essential, but clearly not immutable, components of self. To then have a baby “reject” them sometimes feels like salt in a deep wound. As I often counsel my parents-in-progress, grow bigger shoulders. Know that it is not about you.

But Stress Is Part of Life!

I’m not suggesting anyone become a blandly response-free Stepford Mom — either before or after birth. Normal, occasional stresses are part of life and part of normal development, but I’m inviting pregnant moms to orient themselves toward a posture of holding a protective, buffering space of appreciation — one of my clients used an image of a crystalline, pink bubble for her baby when she was having a stressful day — so that your baby can flourish as robustly as possible. This is also a technique you can use at any stage of the parenting journey, to help maintain healthy distinctions between your “stuff” and your child’s developing brain, which takes in everything.

And always keep in mind that during pregnancy and beyond, you are your child’s living example: your child’s biological mandate is to shape himself — including the intricate circuitry of his brain — to match the promise of the world you portray.


by Marcy Axness, PhD, author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers


[i] McGinn, Michael F. “Attachment and Separation: Obstacles for Adoptees.” Journal of Social Distress & the Homeless 9, no. 4 (2000): 273-90.


Image credit: Phae

26/04/2012 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog, Infertility, Infertility Blog | 14 Comments

14 Responses to How Stress in Pregnancy Affects the Child & What Parents Can Do

  1. Hi Dawn,

    To answer a previous commentor – yes there are studies out there – perhaps not adoption studies per se, but see both links below and then apply the second one that disqualifies “pregnant women considering adoption” from the study and that would indicate to me it is applicable to apply adoption to an occasion that can impact the baby in the womb and after birth if they are disqualified.

    Prenatal Maternal Stress

    Babies Born to Depressed Mothers Have Higher Levels of Stress Hormones.

    Great topic…have to talk about the hard stuff…

  2. Erin Herman Erin Herman says:

    the idea that babies can be born “wired for stress” My own daughter was adopted from Kazakhstan and I know this was true in her case. A little girl I work with is the daughter of a 9/11 widow and the same can be true of her. But they both can and are healing.

  3. Erin Herman Erin Herman says:


  4. Avatar Julie Hart says:

    It’s a shame adoption happens but it really is the best option for many babies. The best scenario would be if the mother was prepared to keep the baby and then changed their mind last minute? It is very hard to put a positive on this story but very interesting all the same!


    Julie H

  5. Avatar Mani Sheriar says:

    I realize I’m pretty late to chime in here but … I just wanted to say that, whether or not this idea is true in general, there are always exceptions to the rule. Just as I’m sure there are difficult, non-self-soothing, collicky, stressed out babies who are born to mothers with wonderful easy pregnancies, so too must there be the opposite. I am raising such an opposite.

    My son’s birth mother struggled with depression, addiction, institutionalization, and needless to say a LOT of stress during her pregnancy. However, my son is one of the most laid back and easy going little guys (8 months now) that you could ever imagine. He’s super happy, flexible, and accommodating.

    So … you just never know one way or another what you’re going to get, regardless of the likelihoods of one outcome or another.

  6. Avatar Marcy Axness says:

    Hello, all–so glad this is stimulating discussion. And yes, it IS healthy and good (tho sometimes not the easiest) to talk about the hard stuff. Yes, Anon, there is a rather daunting litany of “hard research” on the effects of prenatal stress on prenatal development and birth outcomes. One of my key doctoral profs was Curt Sandman who has one of the longest-running and most prolific, well-respected NIH-funded labs studying exactly this for over 30 years now. In my book I actually don’t focus too much on that aspect (aside from reporting the fact of it), but rather, the bigger picture of WHY this is… what is ADAPTIVE about it… and how we can harness our UNDERSTANDING of that adaptive mechanism to most effectively nurture and parent our children.

    Neuroplasticity is your friend! This process I’ve overviewed above is all about the brain suiting itself… adapting itself… to ENVIRONMENTAL DEMAND. If you want a different behavior, offer a different environment… BE a different environment. And we must remember that a child whose early experiences may have undermined basic trust may need to test to one degree or another their conviction that the “new and improved” environment isn’t really true or permanent. We need to outlast their doubt. Very often a very tall order.

    Your experience is interesting, Anon, and reminds us that each child is unique and the research reflects MANY aggregated experiences and outcomes. The old Nature-Nurture conundrum that has fascinated/bedeviled folks for years is made all the more fascinating by the new field of epigenetics, and our recent recognition that “environment” comprises far more than we previously realized, and has more profound implications. Nature/Nurture is a dance, not a debate or struggle, with each taking the lead at different times in development, and each informing the other in iterative fashion.

    Just would point out that the womb experience actually falls under the “nurture” heading, rather than nature (as would anything with the word “experience.” It’s only fairly recently that it’s been broadly recognized that the baby when born isn’t indeed the “tabula rasa”–blank slate–we’d always assumed, ready to meet experience for the FIRST time. Indeed, the baby when born has logged many months of experience already! It does make teasing out nature and nurture all the more complex, but ultimately I wonder if it’s all that crucial to do so. Recognizing the importance of each and of their dance, let’s be environments that might invite the best of our children’s genetic potential and their learned responsiveness!

    One of my mentors used to say, “It’s knowing what REALLY happened to us that makes us sane.”

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Marcy, we’ve done a number of shows on “the old Nature-Nurture conundrum” and every single expert would agree with you that “Nature/Nurture is a dance, not a debate or struggle, with each taking the lead at different times in development, and each informing the other in iterative fashion.” Humans are such wonderfully complex and as you say “plastic” creations, and I find that inspiring and hopeful.

      I also think all that you’ve talked about has such direct relevance to those who build their families through donor egg or sperm or embryo. We are just beginning to learn about the full influence of epigenetics

  7. Erin, what part were you yessing?

  8. Avatar Anon says:

    Just curious if there is any research that supports the author’s contention here about the effects of maternal stress on the baby? Anecdotally, I had an extremely stressful pregnancy with my son, including a twin death and loads of prenatal testing – I was an absolute crazy woman, and this led to my decision to adopt baby #2. In spite of the stressful pregnancy, my kid is the absolutely most laid back child I know. And yet I can’t really compare him to my daughter because she was adopted (at age one) and he wasn’t. How do we disentangle the nature (experience in the womb) with the nurture (experience of separation)? Fascinating stuff.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Anon, I too wonder about some of this. Long term studies of self esteem and identity issues comparing large cohorts of adopted persons and non adopted persons don’t seem to show fundamental differences between the two groups, but I’m not sure that specifically disputes what she is saying. Inherently, I think it’s best to not be stressed when pregnant, but as you point out, plenty of people are. My oldest aunt once told me that every women she knew when she was pregnant during WWII was stressed and crying all the time for fear that they would be widowed and their unborn child would be fatherless. I’m sure she was exaggerating, but I do wonder, for example, if children conceived during a war show the effects of this stress for life.

  9. Avatar Annissa says:

    Perusing your blog via ICLW (#86)

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