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Stress before pregnancy may increase child's eczema risk

Babies whose mothers felt stressed before they fell pregnant had a higher risk of eczema at age 12 months, new research has shown.

Led by Professor Keith Godfrey, director of our NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre, the study is the first to link preconception maternal stress to the risk of atopic eczema in children.

The researchers believe the findings support the concept that eczema partly originates as a baby develops in the womb and could reveal ways of reducing the risk of the skin condition.

Stress before pregnancy

The research, published in Clinical and Experimental Allergy, assessed the stress levels of women recruited to the Southampton Women’s Survey before they were pregnant.

They were asked to report how stressed they were in their daily lives, with a sub-group asked about their psychological wellbeing. Around 3000 babies born into the survey were then assessed for eczema at ages six and 12 months.

Women who reported that stress affected their health ‘quite a lot’ or ‘extremely’ gave birth to children with a 20% higher likelihood of developing atopic eczema at age 12 months.

Mother to child

The researchers think this may be due to the mother’s hormonal balance under stress, which can affect the baby’s immune system and could lead to an increased risk of eczema.

Their findings also showed that stress and low mood experienced closer to the time of conception could have a greater impact on the risk of atopic eczema in the child.

The link was clear even when other factors were accounted for, including a history of eczema in the mother, smoking during pregnancy and infant gestational age, sex and breastfeeding duration.

“More research is needed to investigate this interesting association,” commented Prof Godfrey, “but the findings are further evidence of the influence preconception maternal health and wellbeing has on infants.”

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