Effects of Stress Caused by Prenatal Diagnoses

For a pregnant woman, discovering that the baby she is carrying has a heart defect is devastating. Stress can harm the mother’s health. How might it affect the baby?

In a new study, researchers at the Fetal Heart Program at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia plan to measure stress levels after fetal diagnosis and their effect on blood flow in the fetus, in the mother and between mother and fetus.

child touching stomach Prenatal diagnoses are helpful, because parents have time to absorb the news and doctors can monitor the pregnancy and plan to immediately stabilize the newborn, if necessary. But can the stress of the diagnosis before birth disrupt fetal circulation, potentially resulting in grave consequences for fetal development and even the long-term health of the child?

The study will ask these difficult questions and may be a step toward more carefully monitoring the mom in fetal care. The researchers have applied for funds from the March of Dimes.

“By making a prenatal diagnosis, we think we’re helping, but is it possible we are also causing some harm?” says Jack Rychik, MD, director of the Fetal Heart program and the Robert and Dolores Harrington Endowed Chair in Pediatric Cardiology.

“This study will help us gain a better understanding of those effects. Eventually it may also help us address the question of how we can help modify stress. What we may find is that when we make a prenatal diagnosis of a birth defect, we should also step up our efforts towards stress relief and perhaps refer mothers to proven and effective stress-reduction programs such as group counseling, or even yoga or massage therapy.”

Scientists have proven that some factors during pregnancy, such as smoking, are harmful to the fetus. However, the effects of maternal stress on fetal development and the child’s long-term health is a relatively new field of study.

Some research has shown that maternal stress during pregnancy is associated with early labor, low birth weight and, later, cognitive delays and other developmental problems.

There has been surprisingly little research on stress in women with high-risk pregnancies. The Fetal Heart Program study would be one of the first of its kind in this important and emerging field.

Gift advances research

A remarkable gift several years ago from Anne and John Bazik made such research possible. Their gift funded two Fetal Heart Program studies showing that women with a prenatal diagnosis of a heart defect have higher rates of depression and anxiety than women with a normal fetus. These results were crucial preliminary data in applying for the March of Dimes funding for the larger study.

“The Bazik gift clearly laid the foundation for a whole new field of research for us,” Dr. Rychik says. “It’s a remarkable example of how private gifts from generous and devoted individuals are so vital to our efforts.”

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