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Why reducing toxic stress can improve the health of an unborn child

Editor's Note: Watch the complete documentary at yahoo.com/babybrain.

Researchers are trying to better understand the biology of stress and its impact on child health. Now, data suggests those connections may form as early as the womb, with studies indicating frequent and prolonged adversity for pregnant women can affect the development of their babies. Stephanie Sy reports on a program aimed at easing the stress and struggles of mothers and their unborn children.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Researchers are trying to better understand the biology of stress and the many ways toxic stress can affect a child's health.

    Stephanie Sy has a report produced by Yahoo News about how frequent or prolonged adversity for a mother could affect the development of the baby in the womb.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    When I met Lisa Thompson, like me, she was five months pregnant.

    So, you're due?

  • Lisa Thompson:

    December 5.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Which is the same exact day that I'm due. Congratulations.

  • Lisa Thompson:

    Thank you.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Lisa is 18 years old, and, six months earlier, had been homeless.

    How have you been doing as far as the stress of pregnancy?

  • Lisa Thompson:

    I have had a lot of depression a lot. So, me and the dad kind of — he's happy about it. He says he is going to be there. I'm worried that he is not going to be there.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Did you think you would be doing it on your own?

  • Lisa Thompson:

    No. I mean, I know my mom did it on her own when she was pregnant with me. But it's kind of scary, because I don't want my baby to have a life like that.

    I'm sorry.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    That's OK.

  • Lisa Thompson:

    Because my dad wasn't there when I was born. And, basically, that's all I know.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Researchers now believe poverty can begin in the womb, if a mother is exposed to toxic stress.

  • Dr. Jack Shonkoff:

    When we are stressed, our heart rate goes up, our blood pressure goes up. Stress hormones get released in our bloodstream. Toxic stress is when those systems are activated most of the time.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Dr. Jack Shonkoff, a renowned expert on early childhood development, heads the center on the developing child at Harvard University.

  • Dr. Jack Shonkoff:

    Toxic stress is not about the cause of the stress. It's the biological response to the stress. And an environment that is fraught with stresses affects gene expression. It affects how some genes turn on or turn off.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In utero?

  • Dr. Jack Shonkoff:

    From the moment of conception until the moment you die.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In West Virginia, I have met several moms in an effort to understand how the stresses of poverty might affect them, their children and even their unborn babies.

  • Woman:

    So, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    At a food pantry held monthly at Hope United Methodist Church, I meet Kristin. She asked that we not use her last name, but shares a life story seemingly fraught with stress.

  • Kristin:

    This is my daughter Skyler (ph), one of three. I have a 10-year-old and a 13-year-old. I got pregnant at 16. My mother and father were both addicts and alcoholics. And I had a rough childhood.

    Hello? I'm at a church thing.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So, clearly, you're still struggling financially.

  • Kristin:

    Trying to get away from an abusive guy.

    If you don't believe me, you can talk with — am I at the church right now?

  • Woman:

    Yes, she is.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Can you just tell me about the stresses you were going through? Obviously, you were going through…

  • Kristin:

    I was on Subutex when I was pregnant with her.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    What is that? That's for…

  • Kristin:

    To get off opiates.

    (PHONE RINGING)

  • Kristin:

    This is her dad calling. So, I'm really sorry, but I have got to go pick him up from work.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    OK.

  • Kristin:

    But she had had withdrawals. And I went through postpartum depression. I was alone. I didn't have any support. My mom lives in Tennessee. I don't have a lot of family, and my mom wasn't the greatest mom. So I strive to be what she wasn't.

  • Dr. Jack Shonkoff:

    We have studied resilience in the face of poverty.

    One of the most important predictors of good outcomes in the face of adversity is the presence of at least one reliable, responsive, protective relationship with an important person.

    It can be a — and very often is a parent, can be another family member, a grandparent.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Shonkoff says this new biological understanding suggests breaking the poverty cycle begins with pregnant moms and the right kind of support.

  • Dr. Jack Shonkoff:

    We're already increasing the likelihood that that next generation will do better.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The science may be new, but the national organization Nurse-Family Partnership has been putting it to practice for nearly four decades.

  • Lori Rogers:

    OK, we are headed out for our first visit.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Nurses like Lori Rogers in Montgomery, Alabama, pay home visits to first-time mothers, providing medical checkups and helping them set goals.

  • Lori Rogers:

    One of the things about Nurse-Family Partnership is to make sure that, hey, we're asking, what do you want to do with your life? What's important to you?

  • Woman:

    Hey, good morning.

  • Lori Rogers:

    Good morning.

    We're going to sit over here?

  • Woman:

    Yes ma'am. OK.

    Look at this butterfly.

    Typically, our visit consists of asking how they have been since we have been last here, whether they have been healthy, or — I try to weigh Aubrey. I might get some measurements on her. We typically talk about Latrita, how's her job going.

    OK, well this is a daily job list. I thought I'd give you this and just see. There might be something there.

  • Woman:

    Look at the bunny.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The new science says doing the type of thinking involved in goal-setting actually changes the brain, increasing executive function, which is a key to societal success.

  • Elisabeth Babcock:

    When the work is done well, it helps to change brain wiring, so that the individuals can basically become the navigators of their own lives.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Beth Babcock is head of a program based in Boston called EMPath, which uses the latest neuroscience to coach families toward better outcomes.

  • Elisabeth Babcock:

    We're seeing families that, when we work with them for three years or more, are almost doubling their incomes.

    The real process of helping people move out of poverty is the process of standing beside and helping them see themselves and their future in a different way.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In a sense, it comes down to love. Providing love may counter the toxic effects of poverty-related stress, a surprisingly low-tech way to address what advanced brain science has revealed.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And to watch the complete documentary, go to Yahoo.com/babybrain.

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