New Study: Chronic Stress During Pregnancy Increases Risk for Postpartum Depression

Benedetta Leuner, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Ohio State University, released a new study on Saturday, 10/13/2012, during a talk at Neuroscience 2012, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, in New Orleans.

Istock/Elana Vizerskaya

Using rats, Leuner and her colleagues study the effects of pregnancy on the brain. In a study released last year, Leuner and her colleagues found that the brains of unstressed new rat mothers had a 20% increase in neuronal connections in some brain regions, allowing for increased flexibility in thinking and behaviors: multitasking.

As we already know, at a brain level, learning is actually growth and strengthening connection between neurons (Hannaford, 1995). For example, a habitual act, such as driving, is the creation, eventual connection and the bundling with myelin, of many neurons. The plasticity of the brain, the ability to learn and bundle new neurons results in flexibility of thought and behavior.

The study this year, done by Leuner and her colleagues, shows that new rat mothers, who had been stressed during pregnancy, do not show the increase in neuronal connections in their brains. The stressed rats gained weight, had an increase in size of their adrenal glands, gave birth to smaller pups and were generally not good mothers. The researchers are not sure of the mechanism that inhibits dendritic growth in the brains of stressed rate mothers.

However, this study supports the hypothesis that chronic stress during pregnancy is a risk factor to develop postpartum depression.

Chronic stress, such as poverty, famine, and natural disasters are known to affect human mothers, and to be a risk factor for preterm birth, low birth weight and postpartum depression. The decrease in the ability to mother is devastating to mother and child, and has an impact on society as a whole.

So our grandmothers who told us to take it easy during pregnancy were on the right track!

Managing stress, practicing relaxation and awareness practices during pregnancy, enhances pregnancy.

For more information about stress and pregnancy read : How much stress is too much stress during pregnancy?

My book, BirthTouch® Shiatsu and Acupressure for the Childbearing Year, is all about self-help stress reduction during pregnancy, on a daily basis for 10 -12 minutes a day.

Hannaford, C. (1995). Smart moves: Why learning ins not all in your head. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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10 Responses to “New Study: Chronic Stress During Pregnancy Increases Risk for Postpartum Depression”

  • Kathy, thank you so much for this post. I am in the process of doing greater writing and free workshops for community doulas on the perinatal stress environment in utero, as well as how social determinants impact health. The four texts I am using are ‘How Children Succeed’ by Paul Tough which cross references the above research and Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential–and Endangered by Bruce D. Perry, Maia Szalavitz
    The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are
    Daniel J. Siegel M.D.
    Your blog post gave me fuel to work on this sooner rather than later; and link the social determinants like food scarcity, unstable housing and lack of transportation and blighted neighborhoods/poverty also impact interuternine health.

    • Hi Jill – I love your work! And it sounds like a great new endeavor you are embarking on next! I think the interface of social determinants, social policies on the individual have been so well studied, it is puzzling to me how our society has so little of a saftey net and there are those who wish to whittle it away even more. take care, Kathy

  • I can’t think of a more important time in a woman’s life to make self-care a priority. And sadly, too many impoverished communities have the highest birth rates and the cycle continues.

    It would be great if low-income housing occupants and housing development project dwellers could get their hands on your wonderful book, Kathy. Anyone can find 10-12 minutes per day to de-stress…
    Linda Esposito recently posted..Anxiety Relief in Three Steps: Stop Complaining. Make a Plan. Get Shit Done.My Profile

    • Hi Linda – As always, thanks for your support. There was a program here in NJ called Reduce Stress for Babys Best where the counselor would meet women in McDonalds and talk to them about stress and breathing techniques. I think the grant ran out on it…it was a good program. ty, Kathy

  • Thanks for sharing this important piece, Kathy. This is particularly relevant for women of color. I just heard Tamara Taitt speak at the MANA conference about the impact that living daily with racism has on the health and wellbeing of pregnant women of color. I can only imagine it plays out in higher levels of PMDs as well. Do you know the numbers on that?
    Jeanette McCulloch recently posted..BirthGenius chat #24: working together (for women’s sake!)My Profile

    • Hi Jeanette – thanks for your kind words. Yes, its relevant for women of color and for those who live in poverty. But, as you know, for women of color, even in the higher socio-economic brackets, there are higher levels of pre-term labor and smaller birth weights. I;m planning on doing a blog post analysis of the rates of PMDs for women of color. I wonder if it’s confounded as women of color often do not seek help for mental health issues. thanks, Kathy

  • Hi,

    It makes complete sense that chronic stress during pregnancy causes problems after pregnancy. Prenatal yoga was a lifesaver for me.
    Rachelle Norman recently posted..Song Spotlight: “Beer Barrel Polka”My Profile

  • Kathy,

    I think that it is critical that we continue to build on our knowledge about the social components of our health, and the inseparable nature of our physical and mental health (and that of our children). Thanks again for your commitment to sharing new research.

    Ann Becker-Schutte recently posted..Relationships Online: Real People, Real SupportMy Profile

  • […] In 2012, researchers found that rat mothers who were stressed in pregnancy gave birth to smaller pups, had increased adrenal glands and were generally inattentive mothers. In addition, the stressed rat mothers did not experience the 20% increase in neuronal growth that non-stressed rat mothers experienced. The researchers felt these findings support the hypothesis that stress during pregnancy increases the risk of postpartum depression.   Read more about this study here. […]

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