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Pregnancy stress raises risks of child asthma

Pregnancy can be stressful and anxiety, besides risks to the mother, may also increase chances of having an asthmatic child. This should be reason enough to try and remain as stress-free as possible over the entire duration of your pregnancy.

Stress and child asthma
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Active women often find it difficult to balance their professionally charged lives with the aim of getting enough rest and relaxation during pregnancy. If you’re in the same boat, beware of stress. A study presented at the European Society of Pneumology’s 2008 congress links stress during pregnancy to higher risks of asthmatic babies. 

Asthma in children on the rise

Asthma is the most widespread chronic children’s disease, with close to one in ten children having it. Though not all causes for this respiratory disease have been identified yet, it is now recognised that asthma attacks can be caused by, among others, physiological and emotional factors, and not only those of asthmatic children themselves. Two studies had already demonstrated the link between anxiety of people close to the child (mother or caregiver for instance) and early development of wheezing disorders.

This time around, scientists set out to evaluate the impact of maternal stress on unborn babies. To do so, they monitored a large cohort of pregnant women living in the now defunct County of Avon and due to deliver their babies between April 1991 and December 1992. 5,810 of all mother/infant couples were examined to explore the links between prenatal stress and infant asthma.

Chances of asthma up 65% in cases of acute prenatal anxiety

Maternal anxiety was assessed by self-questionnaires completed at 18 and 32 weeks. Participants were split into 4 groups depending on their anxiety levels. Infant asthma was investigated at age 7 1/2 with questionnaires to the mothers. On the clinical side, bronchial hyper-reactivity screening and skin prick tests (meant to determine whether asthma is allergy-related and, if so, what allergen causes it) were performed, revealing asthma in almost 13% of infants.

This proportion rises to 17% if the mother was under stress in her 32nd pregnancy week and to 14% in mothers stressed at week 18. The link between asthma and prenatal anxiety is even more obvious in mothers belonging to the highest-anxiety group. In this category, risk of asthma can climb to 65% for women reaching their stress peak in week 32 and 53% for those experiencing acute anxiety during week 18. Even though this “maximum risk” needs to be adjusted to include all other possible risk factors, it is nonetheless statistically significant.         

Understanding the relationship between maternal stress and asthma

How is it that stressed pregnant women, especially those nearing their due dates, run an increased risk of having asthmatic children? Animal studies have shown that prenatal stress leads to disruption of the hypothalamo-hypophysial axis, which controls hormones associated with the body’s main functions, and of the immune system. According to the researchers, such disruptions may predispose newborn infants to respiratory tract inflammation and bronchial hyperactivity: in a word, asthma.

"Our first hypothesis was that maternal stress in pregnancy was associated with paediatric asthma," study author Raquel Granell said. "The second was that this effect was not mediated by an allergic mechanism and would be stronger in non-atopic children than in their atopic counterparts." The first hypothesis has been proven, but the second remains to be confirmed.

In spite of several flaws (the team didn’t measure stress levels; whether stress is only temporary or chronic is unspecified; anxious mothers ought perhaps to have reported more symptoms), the positive correlation between risk of infant asthma and maternal anxiety during pregnancy should encourage all expecting mothers to try and spend the nine months of their pregnancies in an as relaxed and stress-free mood as possible.

Source: European Respiratory Society press release – October 2008

Posted 15.11.2010

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