The impact of psychological distress during pregnancy on the developing fetus: biological mechanisms and the potential benefits of mindfulness interventions
The in utero environment plays an essential role in shaping future growth and development. Psychological distress during pregnancy has been shown to perturb the delicate physiological milieu of pregnancy, and has been associated with negative repercussions in the offspring, including adverse birth outcomes, long-term defects in cognitive development, behavioral problems during childhood and high baseline levels of stress-related hormones. Fetal epigenetic programming, involving epigenetic processes, may help explain the link between maternal prenatal stress and its negative effects on the child. Given the potential long-term effects of early-life stress on a child's health, it is crucial to minimize maternal distress during pregnancy. A number of recent studies have examined the usefulness of mindfulness-based programs to reduce prenatal psychological stress and improve maternal psychological health, and these are reviewed here. Overall, the findings are promising, but more research is needed with large studies using randomized controlled study designs. It remains unclear whether or not such interventions could also improve child health outcomes, and whether these changes are modulated at the epigenetic level during fetal development. Further studies in this area are needed.