Prenatal Stress and Sensitivity

By Kurtis Chien

Child development researchers at the University of California, Davis, sought to emulate prenatal stress by placing pregnant prairie voles under stressful conditions. Prairie voles were used because they care for their pups, and can express emotional attachment to other prairie voles, similar to human relationships. Pregnant prairie voles were each placed in a cage with only a divider to separate them from an aggressive female prairie vole. After stressed and control voles gave birth, their pups were placed under the care of either caring or negligent foster parents.

Voles that experienced prenatal stressors represented both the least anxious and most anxious adults. Which extreme depended on their foster parents’ care. The conclusion, then, is that prenatal stress promotes developmental plasticity. Prenatal stress seems to sensitize developing voles to their environments. They could respond more to rich rearing conditions and grow up to become relaxed voles. Or, they could suffer more from developmental deprivation and express greater anxiety later on.

There is controversy in how to interpret these results. Though they indicate that babies exposed to prenatal stress might grow up to become less anxious adults, the biological mechanism between prenatal stress and mental health is still undefined. The ethics of inducing stress during pregnancy may be even more questionable. Still, mothers who experience stressors while pregnant may feel comforted knowing that those stressful events will not necessarily impact their children negatively. 


University of California - Davis. (2018, February 7). Child development experts discover potential upside to prenatal stress. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 18, 2018 from