Just one more reason why justice for moms is good for their children too: Babies born to mothers who face ethnic discrimination have higher levels of cortisol than babies whose mothers did not, meaning that their mothers’ stress has an effect on their bodies. This could set them up for health problems down the line.
The placenta, that semi-clear sac that nourishes the fetus, has enzymes that convert cortisol into a weaker version of itself. However, the placenta can only convert so much cortisol. When the concentration is abnormally high, Thayer posits, some of the non-converted hormone seeps into the womb. Again, a moderate amount of cortisol is healthy for fetal development. Babies who are born prematurely sometimes need synthetic cortisol injections to prompt lung development. But, too much cortisol comes with health problems.
Generational fallout: The meaning of high cortisol levels during infancy isn’t entirely clear. But infants who already have more symptoms of stress compared to their teeny-tiny peers could face health disparities down the road, perhaps related to mood disorders and cardiovascular disease.
Looking at the study more broadly, inheriting bias-induced stress might be part of an observed phenomenon in which maternal health influences a child’s health and development. Some researchers focus on what’s called the epigenetic impact of maternal health, which is roughly the study of how environmental factors (e.g., stress, smoking, diet) actually change genes. Thayer says she’s working on an epigenetic study to see if discrimination against mothers could change the expression of genes related to cortisol production in children.
Inequality compromises its victims’ life chances in so many ways — discrimination, diminished educational opportunities, criminal justice disparities, housing segregation. Now it appears that its effects are written on the body before a child is even born.