Stressed out during pregnancy? It may affect your child’s motor skill development for years to come. Researchers from the University of Notre Dame in Australia in collaboration with the Telethon Kids Institute discovered the effects a pregnant woman’s stress can have on how a child writes, throws, and runs. The study, published in the journal Child Development, demonstrates the increased need for stress screenings during pregnancy in order to avoid harming the developing fetus.

"Given our findings on the importance of mothers' emotional and mental health on a wide range of developmental and health outcomes," said the study’s co-author Beth Hands, a professor of human movement at the University of Notre Dame, in a press release, "programs aimed at detecting and reducing maternal stress during pregnancy may alert parents and health professionals to potential difficulties and improve the long-term outcomes for these children."

For the study, researchers followed 2,900 mothers throughout their pregnancies and then followed up with their children when they were 10, 14, and 17 years of age. Each mother was asked about stressful events during their pregnancy, including financial hardships, deaths in the family or of a close friend, separation or divorce, marital problems, or difficulties with the pregnancy. They were asked when they were 18 weeks pregnant and then later at 34 weeks pregnant.

Next, their children were tested for motor development and coordination, which is responsible for how a child writes, runs, and throws. The test measured hand strength, distance jump, walk along a line heel to toe, and to stand on one food. They also asked their ability to move beads on a box, thread beads on a road, and tap a finger over 10 seconds, among other assessments.

Mothers who experienced more stressful events during their pregnancy gave birth to children who scored lower on motor skill development than other children. Stress later in pregnancy had a greater negative influence on a child’s motor skills than those who experienced stressful events early on.

According to the American Psychological Association, more women report feeling a great deal of stress compared to men, and nearly half of those surveyed said their stress has increased in the last five years. Women also felt more physical and emotional symptoms like headaches, upset stomach or indigestion, and feeling like they could cry.

The American Institute of Stress provides insight into why women may experience more stress than men: The number one reason is hormones. Compared to men, women experience a greater fluctuation in hormones levels associated with symptoms of depression. During pregnancy, a woman goes through extreme hormones changes, which increases the need for a low-stress life. Of course, some stressful situations like a death in the family are out of a mother’s control; however, the way a mother-to-be handles the stress can change the way it impacts her child.

Prenatal yoga is known to reduce stress and anxiety during pregnancy. Research suggests the ancient practice encourages stretching, improves sleep, decreases the risk of preterm labor, and decreases lower back pain, nausea, and headaches. Yoga provides a wide range of health benefits for pregnant women, which is why it’s oftentimes recommended during antenatal care, the care pregnant women receive from health care professionals throughout their pregnancy.

"Screening for postnatal depression occurs in most antenatal clinics in Australia," said the study’s co-author Tegan Grace, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Notre Dame Australia. "This cost-effective model could be used to screen for maternal stress throughout pregnancy as part of regular clinic visits. Pregnant women who are under stress could be counseled about cost-effective stress-reduction techniques, such as gentle exercise."

Source: Grace T and Hands B. Child Development. 2015.