Stress sucks, especially when you are pregnant, but can it affect your baby’s skin? That’s what a new study published in the Journal of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology tried to figure out. Specifically, researchers sought to examine the link between mom’s stress during pregnancy and childhood eczema in her baby. Obviously, there are a lot of different kinds of stress but they were most interested in job stress, adverse life events (like death in the family or a divorce), and poor self-reported mental health.
Eczema, also called atopic dermatitis, is an immune disease. The basic idea is that when mom secretes the stress hormone cortisol during stressful situations, it can affect the developing immune system of her newborn baby. This immune system dysfunction can later lead to the development of eczema after the baby is born. Self-reported stress is one thing, but to figure out exactly how much stress a mom was experiencing, the scientists also measured the levels of cortisol in her hair. Hair cortisol levels have been shown to go up with exposure to chronic stress and are also higher in mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.
The study was done in 2000 mothers in Germany between 2012 and 2013. Mothers were asked questions to assess their living situation and lifestyle factors during pregnancy. Maternal stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms during pregnancy were assessed using a questionnaire. They also asked questions about employment-related and social burdens, especially during the last three months of pregnancy. Later, they were given a questionnaire about eczema symptoms in their baby at six months, one year, and two years after birth.
Babies were classified as having eczema if their mom confirmed that they had the typical itchy rash on face, the inside of the arms and legs, and dry skin in general. Children with a mother reported history of eczema were invited for a formal examination by a dermatologist to confirm the diagnosis and determine the severity of their disease. Additionally, hair samples were collected from the moms’ heads during pregnancy and the level of cortisol was determined.
Researchers found that about 13% of babies developed eczema during the follow up. As expected, they also found that babies whose mom experienced the highest level of self-reported stress had a higher risk of eczema symptoms and severity compared to babies whose mothers had lower levels of stress. Also, maternal anxiety symptoms were associated with a higher risk of eczema symptoms compared to mother’s who did not have anxiety. Finally, children of mothers with the highest levels of cortisol (>90th percentile) were more likely to have dermatologist confirmed eczema than children with moms in the lowest percentiles.
The researchers controlled for things like gestational age (ie was the baby born premature, on-time, or late) and birthweight, and the results did not change. Interestingly, the relationship between maternal stress associated with depression and childhood eczema was stronger when there was no family history of eczema. Stress during pregnancy appeared to be an independent factor contributing to childhood eczema unrelated to genetics.
A big question is whether maternal personality has anything to do with the development of childhood eczema. If a mom is a more anxious or stressed-out person in general does her baby have a higher risk of developing eczema? The researchers cautioned that the data did not suggest this. Another thing that was difficult to determine was exactly how much prenatal versus postpartum stress (such as stress associated with postpartum depression) played a role.
We all know that stress is bad for our skin, but when you are pregnant, this study shows that it can also be bad for your baby’s. If you needed another reason to get proper sleep, eliminate toxic relationships in your life, or get that massage you’ve been putting off, here it is. Your baby’s skin will thank you for it!