The Link Between A Mother’s Emotional Rollercoaster and Baby’s Negative Emotions


A mother and her unborn child share an incredibly sensitive time during pregnancy. Therefore, moms carrying children are more attentive in every way, from their nutrition to how they feel, as it is thought that a mother’s emotions can also affect her baby.

Gauging your feelings throughout pregnancy is more difficult than it might seem because the unpleasant realities of being pregnant lie beneath the “Pleasantville”-like visions of it. The variety of feelings experienced throughout pregnancy is one of them. They might be concerned about the health of their infants, apprehensive about the changes to their bodies, insecure about their relationships, or doubtful about their capacity as moms, to name just a few concerns.

While expecting a kid, it’s normal to feel vulnerable and apprehensive, according to several authorities. This could lead to several health problems for the mother and the unborn child. According to research in the journal Infancy, infants of moms with greater stress variability, or “lability,” showed higher fear, sadness, and distress at three months of age than those of mothers with less stress variability.

The Effect Of Lability On A Child’s Emotions

The Northwestern University study is one of the first to quantify mothers’ experience of stress in real-time on numerous occasions, allowing for a closer examination of whether shifts in mothers’ stress across pregnancy matter for fetal growth. Previous studies have found a correlation between mothers’ distress during pregnancy and newborn temperament and behavior.

The researchers explained that while most of us experience a lot of peaks and valleys in our stress depending on what is happening around us, research frequently examines stress as a static, constant construct that is either high or low, present or absent.

They claimed that because an emotional fluctuation is a natural part of daily human life, it captures an important feature of stress and provides guidance on evaluating stress in the future. It is crucial since they are trying to accurately depict the maternal-fetal milieu concerning how newborns change over time.

For instance, two mothers who experience fluctuating amounts of stress over their pregnancies may ultimately have similar average stress levels. Still, as the researchers explain, this average may not accurately reflect the substantial variations in the stressors their fetus is exposed to.

The study hypothesized that the child’s propensity toward negative emotions might be shaped by the prenatal experience during which a mother oscillates between extremes. The emotional development of children may be significantly impacted by the stress pattern described above, which could reflect instability in daily living experiences, unanticipated external stressors, or volatility in how a mother views her lived experiences.

Therefore, deeper comprehension of the nature of stress during pregnancy should guide prevention initiatives, such as assisting people in achieving a steady state of calm before or at the start of pregnancy, particularly in the face of uncontrollable life events.

Because the researchers’ study coincidentally took place as the epidemic spread, they encountered a “natural experiment” in which some participants completed their assessments prior to the pandemic, others before and during the pandemic, and some entirely during the pandemic.

Despite not intending to, they took use of the opportunity to investigate the effects of prenatal stress during a pandemic on mothers’ experiences.

Interestingly, they discovered there was no connection between moms’ stress levels and the time of the epidemic. Mothers reported equal stress levels regardless if stress tests were taken before or after the epidemic.

The study’s secondary goal was to determine whether the temperamental negative affect of 3-month-old infants was associated with stress lability throughout the 14-week EMA period. The findings offer some preliminary evidence that, after adjusting for baseline and mean stress, higher levels of stress lability during pregnancy are associated with higher levels of newborn negative affect. Inconsistencies in perceived stress during pregnancy imply increased stress lability or more extreme oscillations in stress from one moment to the next, which may have detrimental effects on early infants’ developing regulating capacities.

The Promoting Healthy Brains Project, a prenatal stress reduction randomized controlled trial (RCT) that included 100 pregnant women provided this study’s data. For 14 weeks, the researchers used questionnaires sent to the participants’ phones to gauge how stressed pregnant women were up to four times per day. They classified stress into three categories: baseline stress, average stress levels throughout the course of the 14 weeks, and the amount that a person’s stress levels fluctuate throughout the 14-week period (lability).

The researchers used a temperament test administered to mothers of three-month-old babies to measure infants’ negative emotions. Mothers responded to inquiries regarding their child’s melancholy, distress, limitations, and dread (e.g., how much they clung to their parents when introduced to an unfamiliar adult). Overall, this had a poor average effect score.

The study’s authors noted that it is still unclear how stress and the gestational environment affect the growing fetus. The researchers noted that examining oscillations in stress throughout pregnancy concerning newborn development is still a relatively novel notion. If these trends remain true for families from various situations and with various sorts of support, more research in bigger, more diverse samples is required.

Journal Reference

MacNeill, L. A., Krogh‐Jespersen, S., Zhang, Y., Giase, G., Edwards, R., Petitclerc, A., Mithal, L. B., Mestan, K., Grobman, W. A., Norton, E. S., Alshurafa, N., Moskowitz, J. T., Tandon, S. D., & Wakschlag, L. S. (2022). Lability of prenatal stress during the COVID‐19 pandemic links to negative affect in infancy. Infancy. 

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