Pregnancy during the pandemic: Here’s one way coronavirus could affect fetal development


(AP Photo/Teresa Crawford, File)

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — While there is no evidence that an expectant mother becoming infected with COVID-19 will harm a fetus, there is still one big factor that new moms should be aware of.

While coronavirus doesn’t yet pose a known threat to the unborn, the stress of bringing a new baby into a pandemic could adversely affect the growth of your baby.

“There is a lot of literature that supports the idea that stressors during pregnancy can have a deleterious effect on fetal brain development,” Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital told NBC News.

Nelson says stress releases a variety of hormones into the bloodstream, including cortisol — which can get through a woman’s placental barrier and to the baby.

A Journal of the American Medical Association study on psychological distress on in utero brain development found that psychological distress can lead to fetuses with congenital heart disease. While many fetal heart defects don’t require treatment — or can be fixed relatively easily — some do pose serious health risks or even death to babies.

Before the pandemic hit, one of the study’s authors, Catherine Limperopoulos, surveyed 163 pregnant women. The responses broke down like this:

  • 18% of women said they had moderate-high levels of anxiety
  • 12% said they had symptoms of depression
  • 26% said they felt stressed.

Once the pandemic was underway, Limperopoulos’ team performed the survey again with 35 different pregnant women, finding:

  • 50% said they had moderate-high levels of anxiety
  • 35% said they felt depressed
  • 71% said they were moderately to highly stressed

“Even in the setting of a low-risk pregnancy, where the mom has no risk factors and the baby is developing well,” Limperopoulos said to NBC. “There really is an alarming prevalence of mental health problems reported by these women.”

In July, Austin resident Savannah Hargett explained her pregnancy stress to KXAN Investigator Arezow Doost.

Stressed that was also exacerbated when her husband tested positive for COVID-19 and she herself began having similar symptoms.

“At first, I thought it just might be allergies, and then when he lost his sense of smell and taste I was like, ‘OK, so now it’s a little more intense than allergies,’” Hargett explained. “I just could not get out of bed. I could not breath through my nose.”

While Hargett ended up testing negative, her fears for her son, who was due in just weeks, did not simply go away.

“I’m nervous for him to be born with all the things that are going on,” Hargett said. “I don’t want to put any stress on him, or, you know, have these feelings of angst when he’s here.”

One element of the pandemic in relation to pregnant women that worries health officials is lack of data overall.

“One of our weaknesses and part of the reason we don’t really know, you know, how much the disease evolves or how much it affects pregnant women because part of our data sources are not good,” explained Dr. John Thoppil, President of Texas Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

A June study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that pregnant women who do get COVID-19 are more likely to be hospitalized, admitted to an ICU and put on a ventilator that women who are not pregnant.

Meanwhile, Hargett told Doost that she was feeling better after and hoped other pregnant women take it easy during the pandemic.

“I want to give women some peace of mind,” Hargett said. “Just don’t panic, like — you’re going to get through it.”

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