The Grapevine

Male Babies Born To Women With Trauma More Likely To Be Smaller

Women exposed to trauma at some point in their lives were more likely to deliver male infants of low birth weight, researchers say. These mothers were also found to have higher levels of stress hormones during late pregnancy.

The findings of the study, said to be the first of its kind, were published online in the Journal of Pediatrics on Sept. 18.

"Our study highlights that experiences prior to pregnancy can shape the health of subsequent generations through altered fetal development and pregnancy outcomes," said Dr. Rosalind Wright, Dean for Translational Biomedical Sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

The research team analyzed data on more than 300 pregnant women who were receiving prenatal care with the help of the Programming of Intergenerational Stress Mechanisms (PRISM) study. The data included the medical history of the women and, more specifically, details about their exposure to traumatic and stressful events. 

After they gave birth, their hair samples were collected to measure levels of cortisol — which is the hormone secreted as a result of stress. The birth weight and sex of the infant were also recorded.

The findings revealed an association exclusively among mothers of male infants. The birth weight of these infants experienced an average decrease of 38 grams (approximately 1.3 ounces) if they were born to women who reported being exposed to trauma. These women also measured higher levels of cortisol in late pregnancy.

"Given the disproportionate exposure to stressors among racial minorities and women of lower socioeconomic status, there are important implications for understanding intergenerational perpetuation of health disparities and for understanding how to intervene," Dr. Wright added.

This was also noted in a 2018 report from the American Psychological Association, indicating racial and ethnic minority populations experienced greater levels of stress which could have an impact on their life expectancy. Those of lower socioeconomic status were at increased risk because they may suffer from poorer nutrition and have reduced access to healthcare.

Thus, the new findings extended the implications of these disparities in the case of minority women and those of disadvantaged socioeconomic status. But considering exposure to trauma as a factor could help design better interventions and treatments. 

Children born with a lower birth weight have a higher likelihood of suffering certain complications like low oxygen levels at birth, difficulty in gaining weight, infections, breathing problems, gastrointestinal problems, sudden infant death syndrome, etc.

"Identifying a prior history of trauma and providing interventions, for example treatment for associated mood disturbances, could lead to improved perinatal outcomes that have lifelong implications for health of mother and baby," said first author Dr. Julie Flom, fellow in the Department of Allergy and Immunology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.