Study: Maternal Stress Linked To Negative Health Outcomes for Kids

A Black mother appearing stressed, her young child is playing alone in the background.

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Key Takeaways

  • Research has linked maternal stress to asthma, obesity, ADHD, and autism in children.
  • Glucocorticoids that are secreted in a chronic stress response can mutate mitochondrial DNA and cause negative health outcomes.
  • Evidence-based interventions and screenings have been developed to help minimize the effects of chronic stress.

A recent study from researchers at the University of Cincinnati has linked maternal stress to a higher number of placental mitochondrial mutations that can increase the risk for complex disorders for their children later in life.

The study examined 365 placenta samples from birth mothers in Boston and New York City. The researchers looked for mitochondrial genome mutations and paired them with the mother’s completed Life-Stressor Checklist-Revised results, a self-report measure that gauged their maternal lifetime exposure to stressful events.

The placental samples with the highest number of mutations correlated with the mothers who had experienced a high level of psychosocial stress in their lifetimes. The strongest associations were among Black women. The September study was published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

“It is critical that we better understand the experiences of Black mothers in the U.S.,” Ian H. Gotlib, PhD, professor of psychology at Stanford University, tells Verywell. “And how systemic racism towards Black individuals may modify the impact of other forms of life stress on Black mothers and their children.” 

What Is Psychological Stress?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), psychosocial stress includes a life event or situation that has an unusual or intense level of stress.

Examples of psychosocial stress include:

  • Divorce
  • Death of a child
  • Prolonged illness
  • Natural disaster
  • Domestic violence 
  • Incarceration 
  • Poverty 
  • Other traumatic events

What Psychological Stress Does To DNA

Gotlib says that the physical effects of chronic psychosocial stress can generate a continuing activation of the body’s neurobiological stress response system, which includes the fight or flight response.

This response then triggers the release of glucocorticoids, which can cause structural, functional, and eventual damage to the mitochondrial DNA in both mothers and their children.

Negative Health Effects of Maternal Stress

The negative mental health outcomes of stress are well documented, but the new study highlights the changes at the cellular level that maternal stress can create.

“Systemic stress responses in the body promote increased generation of reactive oxygen species in mitochondria that, in turn, can lead to mutations in the DNA,” Gotlib says.

The toll chronic stress can play on the body may cause high blood pressure, artery-clogging deposits, and brain changes that can cause anxiety, depression, and addiction. 

Maternal stress also has been linked to several childhood conditions that can be a result of mitochondria DNA dysfunction and lead to poor health outcomes later in life, such as:

What This Means For You

If you are pregnant or a parent, talk to your healthcare provider about ways to minimize stress to prevent any negative health effects for you and your child.

The Need for Interventions

Maternal stress can create lasting negative health consequences for children. That's why it's vital that interventions are created to help minimize the effects of stress on both mothers and children.

“Increasing our ability to identify and effectively treat at-risk families is one of the first steps,” Jonas G. Miller, PhD, postdoctoral research fellow in psychology at Stanford University, tells Verywell. “There are ongoing efforts to develop effective tools for prenatal and postpartum clinical screenings of stress and interventions that may help reduce stress in pregnant women and better prepare them for the often challenging transition to parenthood.”

Miller adds that evidence-based interventions have been established to reduce triggers of maternal stress that have been proven to be effective for both mother and child.

The parental role is critical to protecting their children from environmental stress; therefore, many interventions have been created to target both parents and how they interact with their children. Others focus on developing quality parent/child relationships. 

Examples of proven interventions include:

  • Child-Parent Psychotherapy
  • Family Check-Up
  • The Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-Up Intervention 
  • Parent-Child Interaction Therapy
  • Circle of Security

“Caring for children and ensuring they develop in safe environments is not only the responsibility of the individual parent, but is also the responsibility of society,” Lucy King, PhD student of psychology at Stanford University, tells Verywell. “The U.S. must enact policies that help reduce socioeconomic inequality and discrimination, improve access to mental and physical healthcare, and provide mothers with the time and resources they need to establish positive relationships with their children.”

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Brunst K, Zhang L, Zhang X, Baccarelli A, Bloomquist T, Wright R. Associations between maternal lifetime stress and placental mitochondrial DNA mutations in an urban multiethnic cohort. Biol Psychiatry. 10.1016. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2020.09.013

  2. American Psychological Association (APA). APA Dictionary of Psychology: psychological stressor.

  3. Harvard Health Publishing. Understanding the stress response.

  4. Kozyrskyj AL, Mai X-M, McGrath P, HayGlass KT, Becker AB, MacNeil B. Continued exposure to maternal distress in early life is associated with an increased risk of childhood asthma. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2008;177(2):142-147. doi:10.1164/rccm.200703-381oc

  5. Tate EB, Wood W, Liao Y, Dunton GF. Do stressed mothers have heavier children? A meta-analysis on the relationship between maternal stress and child body mass indexObes Rev. 2015;16(5):351-361. doi:10.1111/obr.12262

  6. Ronald A, Pennell CE, Whitehouse AJ. Prenatal maternal stress associated with ADHD and autistic traits in early childhoodFront Psychol. 2011;1:223. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00223

By Amy Isler, RN, MSN, CSN
Amy Isler, RN, MSN, CSN, is a registered nurse with over six years of patient experience. She is a credentialed school nurse in California.