Can Fetus Sense Mother's Psychological State? Study Suggests Yes
Curt A. Sandman, Elysia P. Davis, and Laura M. Glynn of the University of California-Irvine study how the mother's psychological state affects a developing fetus. For this study, they recruited pregnant women and checked them for depression before and after they gave birth. They also gave their babies tests after they were born to see how well they were developing.
They found something interesting: what mattered to the babies was if the environment was consistent before and after birth. That is, the babies who did best were those who either had mothers who were healthy both before and after birth, and those whose mothers were depressed before birth and stayed depressed afterward. What slowed the babies' development was changing conditions -- a mother who went from depressed before birth to healthy after or healthy before birth to depressed after. "We must admit, the strength of this finding surprised us," Sandman says.
Now, the cynical interpretation of our results would be that if a mother is depressed before birth, you should leave her that way for the well-being of the infant. "A more reasonable approach would be, to treat women who present with prenatal depression. Sandman says. "We know how to deal with depression." The problem is, women are rarely screened for depression before birth.
In the long term, having a depressed mother could lead to neurological problems and psychiatric disorders, Sandman says. In another study, his team found that older children whose mothers were anxious during pregnancy, which often is co morbid with depression, have differences in certain brain structures. It will take studies lasting decades to figure out exactly what having a depressed mother means to a child's long-term health.
"We believe that the human fetus is an active participant in its own development and is collecting information for life after birth," Sandman says. "It's preparing for life based on messages the mom is providing."
The study is entitled, "Prescient human fetuses thrive."