Harvard research: Impact of poverty begins in the womb, but it doesn't have to
Dec 10, 2019
The dangers of fetal exposure to alcohol, drugs and lead are widely known by now. But researchers have found increasing evidence of another potential threat to babies in utero: toxic stress. And, more specifically, the kind that’s churned up in a mother who’s struggling to make ends meet.
“People living in poverty are at much greater risk to experience toxic stress, because the causes of stress in their daily lives don’t go away easily — the stress of having a roof over your head, the stress of food, the stress of having bills to pay, the stress of not being able to get out of that hole,” says Jack Shonkoff, a Harvard University professor of pediatrics and director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child. The physiologic results of constant worry include elevated heart rate and blood pressure and the release of stress hormones into the bloodstream — where they can cross the placenta and affect the development of the fetal brain.
“When you are in the kind of stresses that come from not knowing where you’re going to be living or where your next meal is coming from, the severity of the stress can cause us to actually shut down certain aspects of the brain,” explains Elisabeth Babcock, president and CEO of Economic Mobility Pathways (EMPath), a Boston-based nonprofit that aims to end poverty through scientific research and direct support.
The stresses of poverty essentially handicap a baby for life literally before birth, according to a massive and growing body of research from over the past decade, causing the brain to react in ways that lead to riskier behavior — and to a higher likelihood of bad health, poor grades, lower earnings and prison time.
How, then, to level the playing field for babies being born into the disadvantage of poverty? Scientists think the answer is simpler than you might think.
“When we ask anybody’s grandmother about what you need, it’s just somebody to love you,” says Shonkoff, whose research is at the forefront of this new field. “What science says is you need someone who will create an environment that’s well-regulated and protective and predictable.” Whatever way you say it, the upshot is that “kids are developing and thriving.”