Women who suffer stress during the first three months of pregnancy are at risk of giving birth to babies with low iron levels, new research suggests.
And a depleted iron supply in newborns could lead to “physical and mental delays down the road”, say experts.
The study, a collaboration between the University of Michigan and Israel’s Barzilai Medical Centre, suggests that stress during the early stage of pregnancy could potentially be as much of a risk factor in causing iron deficiency as maternal diabetes, smoking during pregnancy and premature birth.
It is the first time maternal stress in humans has been posited as a risk factor for low iron in newborns. Iron plays an important role in the development of organ systems, especially the brain.
Researchers recruited pregnant women who were about to give birth at the Israeli medical centre. The ‘stressed’ group lived in an area blighted by more than 600 rocket attacks during their first trimester of pregnancy.
The ‘control’ group lived in the same area but became pregnant three to four months after the attacks ended. They were questioned about their health, stress levels during pregnancy and depression and anxiety. Core blood, meanwhile, was collected from newborns and their iron (serum ferritin) levels measured.
The results, which were presented at a leading paediatric conference in Boston this week, showed that the 63 babies whose mothers were in the stressed group had significantly lower cord-blood ferritin concentrations than the 77 infants in the control group.
"Our findings indicate that infants whose mothers were stressed during pregnancy are a previously unrecognised risk group for iron deficiency," lead researcher Dr Rinat Armony-Sivan said.
"Pregnant women should be aware that their health, nutrition, stress level and state of mind will affect their baby's health and well-being."
Dr Armony-Sivan recommended further blood tests before 12 months of age, especially on high risk populations, so that ongoing iron deficiency could be detected early and treated.