Background: Animal experiments have convincingly demonstrated that prenatal maternal stress affects pregnancy outcome and results in early programming of brain functions with permanent changes in neuroendocrine regulation and behaviour in offspring.
Aim: To evaluate the existing evidence of comparable effects of prenatal stress on human pregnancy and child development.
Study design: Data sources used included a computerized literature search of PUBMED (1966-2001); Psychlit (1987-2001); and manual search of bibliographies of pertinent articles.
Results: Recent well-controlled human studies indicate that pregnant women with high stress and anxiety levels are at increased risk for spontaneous abortion and preterm labour and for having a malformed or growth-retarded baby (reduced head circumference in particular). Evidence of long-term functional disorders after prenatal exposure to stress is limited, but retrospective studies and two prospective studies support the possibility of such effects. A comprehensive model of putative interrelationships between maternal, placental, and fetal factors is presented.
Conclusions: Apart from the well-known negative effects of biomedical risks, maternal psychological factors may significantly contribute to pregnancy complications and unfavourable development of the (unborn) child. These problems might be reduced by specific stress reduction in high anxious pregnant women, although much more research is needed.