A new study by lead scientist Andreas Berghänel from the University of Göttingen says that prenatal stress accelerates physical growth but inhibits proper motor development in newborn infants.
The purpose of the study was to find either short-term developmental limitations on offspring or long-term predictive adaptive responses (PAR) when a pregnant female undergoes stress due to food shortage.
The study was carried at the researchers’ field station in northeastern Thailand on long-lived female Assamese macaques and their infants through the first one and a half years of their lives. They found that fruit unavailability induced these changes in pregnant monkeys and was also responsible for children with poorly developed immune systems.
They collected data of maternal physiological stress on prenatal development by analyzing glucocorticoid levels in the feces of mothers, maternal caretaking behavior and by comparing photos of other Assamese macaque children in the surrounding forest.
Accelerated growth was just one of the symptoms of reduced food intake and increased glucocorticoid levels in maternal feces. The monkey infants had trouble hanging from a branch with one leg or hand and took longer leaping backwards due to poor motor development.
Andreas explains, “A shortened life expectancy caused by prenatal development disturbances here leads to an accelerated pace of life. The offspring grows faster and reaches sexually maturity quicker allowing for earlier and faster reproduction.”
Julia Ostner, another author of the study has a different take on the subject. She says, “The faster pace of life is astounding. We expected that the poor conditions experienced in the womb would have only negative consequences for the young during the gestation period.”
Why Is Motor Function Important?
Studies have shown that motor development is important in infants as it predicts movements, balance and locomotion. It is also associated with visual perception, muscular development and the child’s ability to write and play. A delayed motor development has adverse effects on these factors while early life underdevelopment is related to earlier sexual maturity.
This study on long-lived animals is backed by other studies on short-lived mammals, like mice. Environmental conditions have been pronounced essential during gestation period and the offspring will also breed the same way in a few months.
This study is another link in the chain regarding evolutionary research as biologists still pounder whether maternal influences on prenatal development is the mothers’ adaptive response to external factors to provide the best nurture to their children in accordance with a changing environment.
Factors That Affect Prenatal Development
Numerous other scientists have also carried out researches of psychological distress of pregnant mothers on prenatal development in children and it was found that the child is at substantial risk of developing atopic diseases due to prenatal maternal stress which include asthma, eczema, inflammations and allergies. This atopy is a result of genetic changes in the child which lead to poor immune functions and poor body growth.
Another study which focuses on the effects of stress due to the death of the pregnant mother’s parent points out that grief during pregnancy has the potential to actually travel down generations in some cases and this shows that it has short and long term effects on the infant.
Growth is often related to developmental milestones but there are external factors which are also prevalent in defining prenatal development like consumption of fish high in methylmercury leads to poor cognitive development, while extreme temperatures, particularly bitter cold temperatures are also the cause of preterm births because of poor placental development in pregnant women.
Poor development of a child can be from a man’s side as well. As the Endocrine Society indicates, physical, chemical and biological stressors before conception in both males and females can increase risks in endocrine, nervous and immune systems during childbirth.
Still there are ways to ensure proper prenatal development. The American Pregnancy Association (APA) points that exercise during pregnancy improves circulation of blood in the fetus, improving infant health and less exhaustion during labor. Especially, yoga, prenatal massages and mindful deep breathing can bring much-needed oxygen to your baby.
Minerals and water-soluble vitamins like folic acid, calcium and iron are also important for proper baby development. Taking care not to overdose and choosing suitable supplements provide nourishment to the fetus, but the APA says that the most important point is a well-balanced diet.