Suzana Herculano-Houzel

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Pregnant women have privileges: preferential service at banks and supermarket checkouts, reserved seats on subways and buses, and the general goodwill of people, even the grumpiest ones, who offer to help with heavy bags and other courtesies. Why? The current reasons range from simple kindness to astonishment at the miracle of a new life in gestation, to consideration for nausea, malaise and the fatigue of many extra kilos carried night and day without rest. According to neuroscience, there is one more reason, a very important one at that, to spare pregnant women from stress: the future well-being of their offspring – and of society too. 

Chronic stress – the kind you try but can’t get rid of – is one of the worst things that can happen to the brain. It kills neurons, disrupts the brain’s mechanism for regulating responses to stress, causes disorders such as anxiety and depression, and triggers latent diseases. In pregnant women, then, chronic stress is triply dangerous, and the problem doesn’t go away with childbirth. On the contrary: those who suffer chronic stress during the prenatal period have reduced maternal behavior after giving birth. Worse still, the consequences for their children can be lifelong. The production of new neurons in the brains of children born during periods of chronic maternal stress is lower than normal throughout their lives, which seems to be associated with vulnerability to a series of problems such as mood disorders, cognitive deficiencies and even drug addiction. Unpleasant for the mother, terrible for the children, bad for society.

But all is not lost. Recent work shows that there is a simple remedy for brains generated under chronic maternal stress: daily affection right after birth. It’s as simple as that. The small detail, of course, is that mothers who suffered chronic stress during pregnancy are much less likely to be affectionate with their offspring after giving birth. The health of society begins, in fact, with the health of mothers.

Luckily, nature has built protections into our bodies, and pregnant women enjoy the natural anti-stress anxiolytic effects of progesterone levels coming out of their ears. Even so, it’s time to start a new campaign, which I’m launching here to take advantage of the New Year, a time for resolutions for a better life. For the happiness of the next generations: Leave Pregnant Women in Peace!

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo on December, 2006.

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