Stress Increases Risk for Delivering Low Birth Weight Baby

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Stressful life events prior to conception can result in an increased risk of giving birth to a very low birth weight baby, a new nationwide study reveals.

A research team, lead by Whitney Witt, PhD, MPH of Truven Health Analytics, is the first to study the relationship between women’s exposure to stressful life events, both before and during pregnancy, and infant birth weight in the United States. Low (less than 2,500 grams) and very low (less than 1,500 grams) birth weight occurs in just over 8 percent of all births in the United States and is the leading cause of neonatal deaths among US babies. Reducing the number of babies born low and very low birth weight has significant implications for the future health and well-being of children and families, and is a national health priority.

The researchers examined data on 9,350 pairs of mothers and children from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey-Birth Cohort, a nationally representative cohort of children born in 2001 and their parents. The goal of this study was to determine the effect of a woman’s exposure to stressful life events on infant birth weight.

Important findings from the study include:

• Mothers who experienced any stressful life events prior to conception were 38 percent more likely to have a very low birth weight baby than women who did not experience a stressful life event.

• The effect of multiple stressful life events prior to conception accumulated to reduce infant birth weight. In other words, as the number of stressful life events a woman experienced increased, the birth weight of her baby decreased.

"We know that the things that happen during pregnancy can impact birth outcomes, but this study really shows that the things that happen before pregnancy are also very important for mothers and children," said Witt, director of research at Truven Health Analytics and the lead author of the study. “Our findings show that stressful life events that happen even before conception are associated with a greater risk of having a baby born with a very low birth weight. This finding highlights the need for preconception care for all women of reproductive age."

“The take-away message from this study is to be aware of that stress experienced before women get pregnant might negatively impact their birth outcomes. Coping with stress in a healthy way may help improve these outcomes. As more research looks at this important topic, we will develop a better understanding of how we can buffer the effects of stress, and keep mothers and babies healthy."

Dr. Michael L. Taylor, chief medical officer at Truven Health Analytics noted that, “Low birth weight is a leading cause of NICU stays, which raise average costs for mom and baby by more than 400 percent nationally. Programs that provide effective tools for stress management obviously can yield a positive return on investment as well as helping families avoid the long term challenges sometimes experienced by low birth weight babies.”

The research was funded by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the Health Resources and Services Administration and the National Institutes of Health. It has been published in the American Journal of Public Health and is available online at ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2013.301544. The study joins a series of related research on maternal and child health from Truven Health Analytics, including “Preterm Birth in the United States: The Impact of Stressful Life Events Prior to Conception and Maternal Age” and “The Cost of Having a Baby in the United States”.