Nov. 7, 2017

Can exposure to a traumatic event before and during pregnancy be passed on to children?

Researchers delve into how prenatal stress may affect moms and babies
Pregnant woman laying on her side sleeping
Researchers are exploring the effects of exposure to traumatic events before and during pregnancy. Colourbox

Can living through an earthquake, forest fire or hurricane during pregnancy affect a woman’s baby? How about when she experiences a death in the family? Can a supportive partner help that baby overcome any negative results from mom living through trauma? Questions like these are at the centre of a novel research program happening now at the University of Calgary that is looking at experiences of stress for mothers before and during pregnancy, and how stress may affect their lives and the lives of their children.

Gerald Giesbrecht, PhD, is working to find answers to these questions. The lead of the university’s Developmental Psychobiology Laboratory and his team seek to understand how stress during maternal gestation can become biologically embedded in children’s development.   

“Examples of events that could have long-term impacts on mom and baby are readily available in the recent natural disasters that have affected huge numbers of people. Pregnant women can’t avoid being exposed to these kinds of events, any more than any woman could avoid a close family member dying during her pregnancy, and the evidence to date would suggest that these events will leave a lasting imprint in the biology and psyche of mom and her baby,” says Giesbrecht, an assistant professor with the departments of Paediatrics and Community Health Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine and with the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts.

Giesbrecht uses the example of children who were born to Holocaust survivors, who despite not being exposed to the Holocaust themselves have much higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression than would be expected in the general population.

Gerald Giesbrecht and his team seek to understand how stress during maternal gestation can become biologically embedded in children’s development.

Gerald Giesbrecht and his team seek to understand the effects of stress during maternal gestation.

Monique de St. Croix

Feb. 14 conference in Banff explores reducing intergenerational effects of trauma

Giesbrecht, who is also a member of the Owerko Centre at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, is co-chair of an upcoming conference that will explore these questions. “I’m very excited about the Canadian Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) conference because our keynote speakers are going to be talking about ways that we can reduce the intergenerational effects of trauma, and it’s a real opportunity to shed some light on this vitally important issue,” he says.

Giesbrecht notes that the dialogue needs to shift away from the notion that this is a “mother’s problem” or that the ultimate responsibility should fall on a mother when trauma occurs. “When we see the intergenerational effects of trauma being played out in the lives of a children it’s tempting to focus on mothers and how we could stop the cascade from mom’s experiences to baby’s development. But this puts all the responsibility on mom and we know that we need to think more broadly. Our research is showing, for example, that when moms have highly supportive partners, the chances that a mother’s experience of trauma will be passed on to the fetus or infant are dramatically reduced.”

Giesbrecht hopes students and researchers will take advantage of the proximity of the conference next February. “We are really fortunate that because the conference is in Banff this year, and because of the pricing structure for students, this is a very accessible conference to attend. We also encourage students and researchers to submit abstracts of their own work to the conference.”

Learn more about the DOHaD conference. 

The Owerko Centre is a multidisciplinary research centre within the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute with a broad translational focus on neurodevelopment and neurodevelopmental disorders. Researchers from the Owerko Centre come from departments and faculties from across the University of Calgary, including the Cumming School of Medicine, Psychology, Nursing, Social Work, Education and are also joined with clinical scientists from Alberta Health Services.

The Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) at the University of Calgary consists of more than 130 scientists and clinician-scientists who are dedicated to advancing brain and mental health research and education. The institute’s research strengths, in the areas of brain and behaviour, neural injury and repair, and healthy brain aging, are leading to new treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders, aimed at improving quality of life and patient care. More information on the HBI can be found at