Women who have experienced trauma give birth to smaller male babies
Individuals who have experienced significant trauma in their life may be more at risk for psychological and mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These health consequences are well-known, but can trauma have an effect on more than just the person who experienced it? Specifically, what kind of effect does trauma have on the infants of pregnant women who have a history of experiencing trauma?
In the first study of its kind, a report from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai has found that male infants born to women who have been exposed to trauma and secreted higher levels of cortisol (a hormone related to stress) were born at significantly lower birth weights.
Using data from the Programming of Intergenerational Stress Mechanisms (PRISM) study, researchers assessed information from 314 pregnant women and their children. The women provided their medical history, as well as information about exposure to traumatic and stressful events, using the Life Stressor Checklist-Revised (LSC-R). This is a commonly used tool to assess lifetime exposure to stressful events specific to women. At delivery, the women also provided hair samples, which were used to measure cortisol levels.
The results showed that women who had both a history of trauma and higher levels of cortisol secretion had infants born at lower birth weights, so trauma alone was not the determining factor. The researchers also only found this association in male babies, which is consistent with other data that shows male fetuses are more sensitive to the effects of maternal stress on intrauterine growth.
Although researchers are not able to pinpoint the mechanisms of this phenomenon, it is known that trauma-related stress can have lasting effects on regulatory systems involved with a woman’s response to stress – including processes related to cortisol production.
“Our study highlights that experiences prior to pregnancy can shape the health of subsequent generations through altered fetal development and pregnancy outcomes,” says Rosalind Wright, MD, MPH, Dean for Translational Biomedical Sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and senior author of the study. “Given the disproportionate exposure to stressors among racial minorities and women of lower socioeconomic status, there are important implications for understanding intergenerational perpetuation of health disparities and for understanding how to intervene.”
An infant’s size at birth is directly linked to their health, ability to function, and risk of disease as they grow.
“Identifying a prior history of trauma and providing interventions, for example treatment for associated mood disturbances, could lead to improved perinatal outcomes that have lifelong implications for health of mother and baby,” says Julie Flom, MD, MPH, fellow in the Department of Allergy and Immunology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the study’s first author.