Prenatal maternal stress refers to the stress that a mother experiences during her pregnancy. Prenatal stress can be chronic, linked to ongoing events in a woman’s life, or acute, linked to sudden changes in a women’s daily routine or environment. One feature unique to SPIRAL, involves its division of prenatal maternal stress into two components: objective stress and subject distress.
- Objective stress refers to the amount of hardship that a woman faces during a period of stress. This can be measured by the number of days that she is exposed to the stressor, the changes that occur to her daily life, and the losses she incurs due to the stress (e.g. money or property).
- Subjective distress refers to a woman’s personal reaction to the stressor and can be measured by assessing her emotions and feelings at the time that she was exposed to the stressful event.
Prenatal maternal stress is of utmost importance to study, due to research findings that suggest stress levels are associated with negative consequences in fetal and infant development. Understanding how prenatal maternal stress is transmitted to the fetus requires some understanding of the human stress response system. When a person is exposed to an event that is perceived as stressful, the brain triggers a cascade of events ultimately leading to the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol. These stress hormones help prepare the individual to cope with the stressor. However, it has been demonstrated that in pregnant women, these hormones have the ability to pass from the mother to fetus via the placenta. This is supported by studies that have found high maternal cortisol levels to correspond with high fetal cortisol levels. Exposure to high cortisol levels can then pose negative consequences to the developing fetus. Moreover, it has been demonstrated that in utero exposure to high levels of cortisol also affect post-natal development. Therefore, a primary goal of SPIRAL is to better understand the effects of acute and chronic stress exposure on child development, as well as the mechanisms by which maternal stress acts to impose these effects.
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