The promise or threat of impending parenthood can turn an otherwise calm person into a neurotic wreck. And when you encounter people who are expecting their first child or even their second child, they often really start freaking over things they shouldn’t be.
And if you look in parenting books, they all say "don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t do this." Whatever you do, don’t do whatever it might be. And a great irony is that the cumulative effect of those is not necessarily good for the baby. It might be that that parenting book that is causing the pregnant mother so much anxiety might be worse for the baby than a glass of red wine.
And the reason for this has to do with stress hormones. So in addition to all of these things that we hear about - external things like cigarettes or drinks or foods that we should avoid, a major source of problems in children is potentially stress. So stress hormones are hormones that can affect development. They can slow development in normal adulthood and in normal people. Stress responses are often positive because they conserve energy for the short term to help you get away from danger and they take away energy and resources from the long term.
And in fact, a major factor in prenatal development, in infant outcomes and outcomes later in life is stress. Stress can be bad for developing babies. For instance, persistent stress in a mother who is pregnant can lead to increased incidence in things like cleft palette or depression in the child or in developmental problems.
There are some very interesting studies in which extreme stress, such as, for instance, being caught in a hurricane strike zone or being caught in an ice storm can be bad for developing babies. So it’s been demonstrated that if women are caught in a hurricane strike zone or in an ice storm when they are between months five and nine in pregnancy, those are associated with an increased incidence of autism.
And so that’s interesting because what it suggests is a possibility that stress at critical periods of development can be bad for the developing brain. And this is something that is not an external factor in the sense that it’s the hormone that we all secrete naturally in response to a stressful environment and at the wrong times too much stress can have an effect that’s much larger than one glass of red wine or one cigarette.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
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