How Stress And Chemicals Affect Developing Babies’ Brain

Stress and chemical exposure during pregnancy and infancy may have long-lasting effects on children. The good news is that there are plenty of things parents can do to protect their baby’s developing brain.


Most expecting women understand that it is important to remain healthy during pregnancy. They know they should eat healthy foods, take prenatal vitamins, exercise and avoid smoking and drinking alcohol. One of the main reasons to maintain a healthy pregnancy, ultimately, if a mother is exposed to something harmful, her baby will also be exposed to and affected by it.

A developing baby is extremely vulnerable due to its size and the fetal development that takes place while in the womb. Organs are forming, the heart starts beating, arms, legs, fingers and toes grow, reproductive organs develop and, at any point, harmful external factors could have a negative influence.

Recently, researchers from Harvard and Mt. Sinai found that both environmental chemicals and environmental stress can disrupt the development of a fetus’ brain and negatively impact the baby’s long-term health, even increasing the risk of autism spectrum disorders.

The effect of stress and chemical exposure on a developing brain

In a nutshell, both chronic stress and/or exposure to environmental chemicals during pregnancy can overload and effect the developing brain.

Chronic stress in the mother during pregnancy overwhelms her ability to cope, and results in the release of neurochemicals and hormones that can disrupt key systems in a developing baby (especially vulnerable is the baby’s neurological development), much in the same way as a chemical like lead does. Stress also impacts both the mother and child’s immune systems. With a compromised immune system, the affect of even low levels of chemical exposure is enhanced (whereas another person with a strong immune system exposed to same chemicals might not be compromised in the same way).

Chronic stress (not to be confused with everyday stressors) can be caused by situations including the death or sickness of a loved one, workplace stress, financial hardships, marriage problems or abusive relationships.

Environmental chemical exposure can be the result of diverse conditions including workplace conditions (where you are exposed to a high level of chemicals on a daily basis), living near farmland where pesticides are sprayed, exposure to high traffic areas or even the cumulative effects of everyday household chemicals.

How to help your child’s developing brain

On the bright side, pregnant mothers who face toxic environmental, social or emotional situations can help their unborn babies by following these steps:

  1. Following a healthy diet. The better a mom’s diet during pregnancy, the more she will nourish her baby’s growing brain. Adding plenty of Omega 6 and 7, Vitamin E and iron during pregnancy to an already healthy diet is ideal.
  2. Partake in activities that reduce stress. A woman might not be able to eliminate stress in her life, but it is important for her to learn how to work through the stress. Exercise, meditation and prenatal yoga are all effective and healthy ways to deal with stress that will benefit both mother and baby.
  3. Reduce exposure to chemicals. It is impossible to avoid all chemicals, but there are plenty of easy changes you can implement in your daily routine to reduce exposure to serious chemicals such as taking shoes off when indoors, dusting often, choosing glass over plastic, frequently washing hands with a gentle, non-toxic hand wash and eating organic produce, protein and high quality dairy products.
  4. Stimulate your newborn from the very start. While many of their vital brain cell connections are formed during the prenatal period, the majority of their neural development/connections responsible for language, hearing, movement and learning will be formed in the first three months of life and beyond.

Ways to stimulate your newborn’s development

The single most important thing is to have a strong relationship with your baby. Be attentive to their cues, however basic they might seem in the first few months, and remember that you cannot spoil an infant with too much attention!

Excess crying in an infant leads to chronic stress and anxiety in their little bodies which, just as is the case with chronic stress in a pregnant woman, can result in a hormonal responses that can intervene with the baby’s neural development.

Skin to skin contact– and the lack of touch – has a powerful influence on a child’s physical and intellectual development. Breastfeeding and snuggling should always be encouraged by both parents. Even allowing baby to take a nap shirtless on top of a shirtless mom or dad is very beneficial during the first weeks of life.

Holding your little one in slings and carriers is another wonderful way to help bond with baby and to help develop their brain. Infants who are carried more tend to cry less and can use their energy to observe, interact with the environment and learn. Simply by holding and responding to your baby helps them form more brain cell connections!

Talking, singing and reading to your baby is another fun way to help their developing brain. Pause to give them an opportunity to respond, use sweet tones, sing silly songs and exaggerate facial expressions in order to teach your baby how to listen and eventually speak.

While some circumstances might be out of your control, it is empowering to know that the decisions you make during pregnancy and in the first months of life can and will help your baby develop into a healthy, happy child.


Continue exploring

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