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It’s science: Dad’s stress levels at conception may affect baby’s brain development

It’s no secret: Trying to get pregnant can sometimes feel stressful, for both parents—and that’s probably normal. But new research shows that high levels of stress during pregnancy can have an impact on your child’s brain health, and it turns out, stress felt by fathers before pregnancy is also a factor.


A dad's stress levels can change their sperm, which can affect your baby's brain development, according to a new animal study.

Working with male mice, scientists from the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that an increase in stress hormones—known as glucocorticoids—can alter key aspects of a father’s sperm, affecting their child’s response to stress. In particular, the researchers discovered that the uptick in glucocorticoids could change the genetic material found in tiny sacs released by the duct where sperm matures. The sperm then combines with these sacs, known as vesicles, both winding up in the semen that travels the egg—and with it, changes to the genetic material.

Speaking to The Guardian, lead researcher Tracy Bale, professor of neuroscience at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said of the findings, “What it is telling us is that there is a point in the reproductive tract of the male that responds to changes in the environment—in this case it is stress, but other groups have looked at things like dietary challenge. These effects … seem to be lasting in the father.”

The yet-to-be-published research was presented at the 2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Austin, Texas.

Bale’s latest research builds on a previous mice study that showed stress could change microRNA production in sperm. In 2015, Bale, then working at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered that male mice exposed to a mildly stressful event, such as being briefly restrained, created sperm with higher levels of microRNA, which seemed to reduce their offspring’s response to stress. MicroRNA, contained in the vesicles, play a vital part in which genes become functional proteins.

But how, exactly, does the increase in microRNA affect a baby’s brain development? “The hypothalamus, the part of the brain that determines your stress response, has been wired differently,” Bale told The Guardian.

Bale and her team of researchers have noted that a dampened stress response can affect a child’s overall mental health. That’s because studies have linked an inability to handle stress well with an increased risk of certain neurodevelopmental disorders such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

A greater understanding of how a father’s stress levels can affect a child’s brain development can give doctors a better understanding of these disorders, and how to detect and prevent them, according to the scientists.

For dads-to-be, it’s important to recognize that trying to conceive can be stressful. Taking time to de-stress now is a good idea for dad and his future baby.

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When your coworker is expecting a baby, what do you give them? A cute onesie? Some classic baby books? How about your own paid time off?

A recent report by Good Morning America has sparked plenty of online conversation about the growing trend of colleagues donating their own paid time off to an expecting parent in the workplace, and the overwhelming consensus is that while well intentioned, colleagues shouldn't have to crowdsource a substitute for parental leave.

As plenty of Twitter users have pointed out to GMA, paid parental leave is sorely needed in the United States, but in its absence, generous co-workers are giving up their own PTO so that a new mother or father can enjoy an extra day at home with their baby.

Last month The Washington Post reported the practice is common in federal offices. "Co-workers donate them to help extend parental leave so a frazzled new mom doesn't have to go back to work six weeks after giving birth," columnist Petula Dvorak wrote.

GMA interviewed mothers in non-federal workplaces who had their maternity leaves topped up by colleagues' donations.

Jessie Sampson works for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, but Nebraska does not offer state employees dedicated paid maternity leave. The state does allow "new moms who work for the state to receive donated time once they have used their own accrued sick time" thanks to a program launched in January GMA reports.

Sampson was able to have four more weeks with her second child than she did with her first thanks to the donations of coworkers. "I had more bonding time with my child and I was able to establish a much better breastfeeding routine," Sampson told GMA. "That's time [my colleagues] could be spending relaxing and to give it to me to spend time with my child, I'm really grateful for that."

Sampson is greatful, but Twitter users are outraged by the idea that programs like this should even have to exist, and point out that the colleagues of new parents shouldn't be sacrificing their own time off.

While well-intentioned to be sure, colleagues who donate their own paid time off may be putting themselves at risk. Research indicates that women who don't take their vacations time are eight times more likely to have a heart attack or develop heart disease than women who vacation twice a year, and when men at high risk for heart disease actually take their vacations they're 32% less likely to die of heart disease.

In short, we need our time off. And when colleagues feel pressured to donate theirs so a new parent can take a leave, they're putting themselves at risk of burning out. That's simply not fair, and it's actually not good for workplace productivity either.

"The mental and physical benefits of taking time off work include improved sleep, a better headspace, more clarity and increased creativity," Dr. Kathryn Smerling, a New York City based psychologist told NBC News. "By taking time off, you'll find a renewed sense of purpose, more energy to carry out tasks and in general, an overall sense of happiness."

Colleagues donating their own time off is a beautiful, generous act. But it's an itty-bitty Band-Aid on a great big gaping wound. America needs paid parental leave, and we need it now.

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Sometimes people get hungry when they're out and about, and since babies need to eat more often than most of us, they definitely get hungry away from home. Parents can't—and shouldn't—be forced to find a private spot for a breastfeeding break every time baby needs to nurse.

Breastfeeding is normal, it's natural and our right to do it in public is protected.

American mothers "have the right to breastfeed your baby wherever and whenever your baby is hungry," according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' Office on Women's Health. Until this year, Idaho was the one state that had no protections for breastfeeding mothers, but that has changed.

Now all 50 states (and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands) have laws that protect a mom's right to breastfeed in public, notes the National Conference of State Legislators.


The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the World Health Organization all encourage women to breastfeed and want to raise breastfeed rates in the United States. These organizations encourage exclusive breastfeeding because a growing body of evidence suggests breastfeeding offers optimal nutritional and immune system benefits, including lower risks for asthma, obesity, type 2 diabetes, ear and respiratory infections and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the CDC, 63.74% of Americans believe women should have the right to breastfeed in public places, and 57.75% say they are "comfortable when mothers breastfeed their babies near me in a public place."

Just over 19% of Americans are not comfortable seeing mothers breastfeed in public, but it's important to remember that a mother's right to breastfeed is legally protected, comfort in public spaces is not. Unfortunately, research suggests that "restaurant and shopping center managers have reported that they would either discourage breastfeeding anywhere in their facilities or would suggest that breastfeeding mothers move to an area that was more secluded."

Those attitudes are changing, but there are still many people who do not understand that breastfeeding moms have a right to feed their babies in public.

Recently, an Illinois mother who was waiting in (a very, very long) line during the Build-A-Bear Pay Your Age event was reportedly discouraged from nursing by a mall security guard. Fellow moms were not having it, and held a peaceful protest inside the shopping center last Saturday.

"We do not agree with the officer's decision to approach the mother and his actions do not reflect the views of this shopping center," the mall's General Manager said in a statement to the Beacon News. The manager apologized and said the shopping center will continue to support breastfeeding rights in the future.

So what can a mother do if she is approached by someone who discourages her from nursing in public?

"Remember that the law protects your right to feed your baby any place you need to. You do not need to respond to anyone who criticizes you for breastfeeding," the CDC states on its website. "If you feel in danger, move away from the person criticizing you and look for people who can support you.


We can breastfeed at bus stops, at restaurants, at the public pool, at the library, at the mall, or anywhere we need to. It's our responsibility to feed our children when they are hungry, and it's our right, too.

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They say there's no use in crying over it, but for pumping mamas, spilled milk is a major upset.

When you're working so hard to make sure your baby has breast milk, you don't want to lose a drop, and Chrissy Teigen knows this all too well.

The mom of two posted a video to social media Wednesday showing her efforts to rescue breastmilk from a tabletop. She used various utensils and a syringe to try to get the milk back in the bottle.

"I spilled my breastmilk and this is how important it is in this house," she says while suctioning up milk with what appears to be a baster.

In a follow-up video Teigen continues to try to rescue the spilled milk.

"We're trying," she says as she suctions up a drop or two. "I got some."

Teigen is currently breastfeeding baby Miles, her son with husband John Legend, and has been very public about the fact that she pumps a lot as a working mom.

She's also been open about the fact that milk supply has always been an issue for her, not just with Miles but with Luna, too.

"I actually loved [pumping] because I'm a collector of things, and so when I found out I could pump I [did it] so much because I knew the more you pumped, the more milk you'd make," she told POPSUGAR back in March. "So I loved collecting my breast milk and seeing how much I could get, even if it was very, very little."

Like a lot of moms, Teigen did struggle emotionally when a pump session wouldn't get her the ounces she wanted.

"I wasn't producing a lot of milk, and it was frustrating. When you're frustrated, [it can also make you] not produce that much."

Research backs her up. Stress has been linked to lower milk production. Because of that, she's trying to stay positive this time around, but captioned her video post "EVERY DROP COUNTS IN THIS HOUSE" because, well, they do.


So many mothers can relate. Have you ever tried to save your breastmilk?

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Former Bachelorette and mom of two Ali Fedotowsky is on a roll when it comes to starting conversations about why we mamas should love our bodies (and we love her for it).

Earlier this week Fedotowsky posted a series of photos showing her postpartum belly, loose skin and all. It was a vulnerable post, but a really valuable one in a world where images of celebrity postpartum bodies often don't reflect the ones we see in the mirror.

"I know it's important to be open and honest about my postpartum body in hopes that it helps even one person out there who is struggling with their own body image," Fedotowsky captioned the photos.

It seems like that post is helping, because, as Fedotowsky noted in her next Instagram post, her honest belly pics were met with an outpouring of love and support.

"I had no idea how many women needed to see that post," she wrote, noting that the reaction to those photos inspired her to write a blog post featuring her favorite breastfeeding-friendly clothing, because she's celebrating and loving her postpartum body for what it did and continues to do for her baby, not just what it looks like.

"Yes, I may have extra fat and loose skin around my belly, but that same body nourishes and comforts my child. Just another reason to love every inch of my body and how it has changed."

Fedotowsky gave birth in May, so she's only a couple months postpartum and it's not surprising that she's still carrying a little extra weight. Research indicates that about 20% of moms are carrying about 11 pounds extra 6 to 18 months after giving birth. And while weight loss is often cited as a reason for women to breastfeed, studies show that breastfeeding doesn't lead to substantial weight loss for everyone, and in fact only has a small effect on postpartum weight loss typically.

So moms like Fedotowsky should absolutely love the bodies that are feeding their babies, and we love how Fedotowsky is encouraging that.

Pregnancy changes our bodies. But they are still so beautiful.

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