Pregnant in a Pandemic: How COVID-19 Stress May Affect Growing Babies

A small survey found that stress among pregnant women has tripled since the start of the coronavirus pandemic

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There is no evidence that COVID-19 infection during pregnancy directly impacts the growing fetus, NBC News reports. But the stress of being pregnant during the pandemic might.

"There is a lot of literature that supports the idea that stressors during pregnancy can have a deleterious effect on fetal brain development," said Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children's Hospital.

Nelson explained that during times of extreme distress, the body releases a cascade of hormones into the bloodstream. Those stress hormones, which include cortisol, have the ability to cross the placental barrier between mother and baby.

Some areas of the fetal brain are quite receptive to stress hormones. One of those areas is the hippocampus, which plays a major role in learning and memory. A study published earlier this year in JAMA Pediatrics found marked differences in the growing fetal brains among pregnant women who were psychologically distressed.

"Among those pregnant women with high levels of stress," said study author Catherine Limperopoulos, "we could see negative impacts on the fetal brain," including a disruption to the brain's biochemistry.

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