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New research indicates stress in the second and third months of pregnancy can shorten pregnancies, increase the risk of pre-term births and may affect the ratio of boys to girls being born.
These are the conclusions of a study that investigated the effect on pregnant women of the stress caused by the 2005 Tarapaca earthquake in Chile.
Previous research has suggested that in times of stress women are more likely to miscarry male fetuses because they grow larger than females and therefore require greater investment of resources by the mother; they may also be less robust than females and may not adapt their development to a stressful environment in the womb.
“Looking at information on gestational age at the time of the earthquake in a large, unselected group of women, enabled us to determine the risk for specific birth outcomes by gestational age of exposure to a stressor, which, because it was a natural disaster, was experienced by all at the same time, although in varying degrees of severity, depending on how close they lived to the epicentre,” said Professor Florencia Torche, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology at New York University in New York, New York. “We were able to capture the developmental periods in which exposure to stress was most detrimental for either sex.”
The researchers found that women who experienced a severe quake (because they lived closest) during their second and third months of pregnancy had shorter pregnancies and were at higher risk of delivering pre-term (before 37 weeks gestation).
The pregnancies of women exposed to the earthquake in the second month of pregnancy were on average 0.17 weeks (1.3 days) shorter than those in the unaffected areas of Chile. The pregnancies of those exposed in the third month were 0.27 weeks (1.9 days) shorter.
Normally, about six in 100 women had a pre-term birth, but among women exposed to the earthquake in the third month of pregnancy, this rose by 3.4 percent, meaning more than nine women in 100 delivered their babies early.
The research published online in Europe’s reproductive medicine journal Human Reproduction.