Pregnant mothers share nutrition with their babies, but that’s not all. They may also pass along stress signals to their children. Unmanaged, that stress can adversely affect children’s lives, potentially heightening the likelihood of disease later in life, according to researchers at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

The scientists examined DNA sequences called telomeres, located at the ends of chromosomes, in children of mothers who reported high stress levels in the third trimester of their pregnancies. Researchers found these portions of DNA were shorter than normal, according to a study published in November in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. Shorter telomere length has been associated with higher risk for heart disease, cancer, and earlier death, multiple studies have found.

“What we've shown is that the quality of supports a woman receives throughout her pregnancy is very important, not only to her well-being and ability to prepare to do the best job as a parent. They also affect how her body supports the development of her baby,” said Sharon Landesman Ramey, research professor and distinguished research scholar at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and one of the researchers on the study.

Judith Carroll, associate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, is the study’s lead author.

“These children are not fated in terms of their health,” Ramey stressed. “The research means mothers and their families should be extra aware of beneficial health promotion activities because their babies might start off with some challenges.”

The study tracked 111 mothers and their children from before conception until early childhood. All participants were part of an existing study group that Ramey helped develop, the Community Child Health Network, an initiative funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health.

The scientists utilized a well-established perceived stress scale. Mothers answered a 10-item survey, which included such questions as “In the past month, how often have you found that you could not cope with all the things you had to do?” The mothers in the study were assessed over six or more years, from prior to conception up until the children were 3- to 5-years-old.

The new study is the first to relate telomere length in young children to maternal conditions during the prenatal period. The researchers suggest that a baby’s exposure before birth to inflammation and circulating stress signals, such as cortisol and catecholamines, may inhibit telomere growth, but also note that further research is warranted to better understand the biological pathways underlying telomere loss.

The children’s telomere lengths were checked by examining cells swabbed from inside their cheeks. Self-reported stress by pregnant women in their third trimester showed the strongest correlation to effects on telomere length. Maternal stress reported within 12 months before conception and soon after birth showed no effects on telomere length.

Previous research suggested a link between prenatal maternal stress and telomere length, but analyzed a single point in time for the mother’s stress versus a span of several years.

Ramey said the findings are especially pertinent now due to the public health concerns and economic disruptions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We all must find ways to be attentive to and supportive of all people, but especially families expecting children, and do the positive things that lower stress in a time of such uncertainty,” she said.

The study’s other authors are Nicole Mahrer, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of La Verne; Madeleine Shalowitz, director of Child and Family Health Studies at NorthShore University HealthSystem; and Christine Dunkel Schetter, professor of psychology at UCLA’s Semel Institute.

Written by Matt Chittum