Since maternal immune response, absent of infection in the fetus, can cause harm to the fetal brain, maternal stress therefore creates vulnerability. Studies have shown that prenatal maternal stress (PNMS) increases the production of stress hormones like cortisol which prepares individuals to deal with stress. Cortisol plays a role in the development of the fetus and in preparing the mother’s body for childbirth. However, attenuations of elevated maternal cortisol from chronic stress can cause immune dysregulation and chronic inflammation which greatly increases the risk of poor health outcomes in the fetus. Research suggests that offspring of mothers who experience high levels of stress during pregnancy are more likely to have problems in neurobehavioral development including autism and ADHD and have an increased risk for childhood behavior and emotional problems, language delay, cognitive problems, mixed handedness, and later onset disorders such as schizophrenia.
Additionally, maternal stress as a social determinant of health creates vulnerability in children as it is associated with low birth weight, diminishes innate immunity, and increases the likelihood of neurological dysfunction.