Dr. Leonardo Leonidas, MD, recently retired assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Tufts University School of Medicine, where he was recognized with a Distinguished Career Teaching Award, has identified fetal post-traumatic stress disorder as a critical link to childhood and chronic illness.
Fetal PTSD occurs during pregnancy, as toxic chemicals and substances, as well as the mother’s emotions and stress levels take a toll on the pre-born child’s brain. During the first 18 weeks of gestation, the brain is growing by the billions of neurons. By the end of the 18th week, all the brain cells that the newborn will have are completely formed and have reached their predetermined locations. During the second trimester, the cortical connections develop, as well as the dentritic arms that transport information from one neuron to another. During these two stages, the brain is vulnerable to toxic substances.
Forty years ago, when Dr. Leonidas began his pediatric practice in Bangor, Maine, he did not see many children with autism, ADHD, OCD, or bipolar disorder. Today, 5-10% of school children are diagnosed with ADHD. One out of every 50 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism.
Dr. Leonidas believes that the number one cause of our children’s behavioral and school difficulties is significant stress during pregnancy. A second cause is failure of pregnant mothers to consume enough food with DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid.
How can stress during pregnancy cause chronic mental disabilities in children? Research findings in the United States, Canada, Israel, Japan, France, and other countries have shown that when a pregnant mother is chronically stressed, her cortisol level, the stress hormone, goes up in her blood. Then it goes to the placenta and ultimately circulates in the fetal brain.
Exposure by the fetal brain to high levels of cortisol causes language delay, cognitive difficulties, and neuropsychiatric disorders in children. Researchers call this “prenatal programming.”
In January 1998, there was an ice storm in Quebec, Canada. Hundreds of pregnant women were exposed to the hardships associated with power failure. From this group of mothers, 58 toddlers were investigated at two years old. Members of the Douglas Hospital Research Centre found that the low general intellectual and language abilities of the toddlers were the result of the stressful events that their mothers experienced during the ice storm, a natural disaster. The researchers also found that the higher the level of stress and the earlier it was experienced during pregnancy, the lower were the cognitive and language abilities of the toddlers. One other factor that contributes to behavioral and cognitive disabilities in children is the mother’s lack of consuming enough DHA, a fatty acid that contributes to optimal fetal brain growth.