As the mother of four-year-old twins, assistant professor of psychology Nicole Mahrer has a personal and professional interest in learning about the predictors of children’s behaviors and healthy development.
In the university’s new College of Health and Community Well-Being, her research has found a home, where she examines multiple aspects of wellness that impact soon-to-be mothers, infants, and young children.
A pediatric psychologist by training, Mahrer came to the University of La Verne from University of California, Los Angeles in 2019, where she was a post-doctoral scholar with interests in child psychology, health psychology, culture, and prevention.
“I really wanted to teach, do research, and help train a new generation of clinicians,” said Mahrer. “At the University of La Verne, that career path is much more doable.”
Within the College of Health and Community Well-Being, Mahrer has designed the Child Health, Environment, and Culture Lab. Here, her students can participate in data collection and even bring their own ideas to the research. A few of her students are parents themselves, bringing personal perspectives like Mahrer’s to the important subject of children’s healthy development.
One of Mahrer’s key areas of research is studying mothers-to-be, both pre-pregnancy and during pregnancy, and the impact of their stress and anxiety on their newborns.
“As a researcher, it makes sense to me that what’s happening to your body and brain when you’re pregnant is going to affect the child that’s growing inside you. What was surprising to me, though, was the fact that the impact can start so much earlier, before the pregnancy even happens.”
In her studies of four- and five-year-olds, she found that the more anxiety the mother experiences, the more negative impacts it will have on the developing child’s behaviors, including irritability, anger, depression, and sadness.
“Pregnancy anxiety is different than traditional anxiety,” she said. Pregnant women generally “worry about how their baby is developing, what kind of medical care they can expect, and ultimately, how they will be as a parent.”
Anxiety during pregnancy is also different for communities of color and lower-income mothers-to-be. Spanish-speaking Latinas who are expecting may have additional stressors, Mahrer explained. “Will I be safe in the hospital? Can I communicate with the medical team?”
In addition, her studies show that a mother’s high levels of stress before and during pregnancy may impact the birth outcome and how her child ages and reacts to their own stress. According to Mahrer, stress can also increase the chances of having a low-birthweight baby, defined as weighing less than 5 pounds 8 ounces.
Her work also differentiates how much stress a mother-to-be perceives—how overwhelmed she feels, her inability to cope—from the actual stressors that are happening in her environment.
Mahrer explored the effects of stress pre-conception in a diverse low-income population. Her findings reveal that the more environmental stressors a woman experiences before even becoming pregnant, like financial difficulties, job loss, interpersonal violence and discrimination, the more likely she is to have a shorter gestation and a premature birth.
Surprisingly, birth outcomes can even be impacted by having experienced too little stress pre-conception. “Pregnancy itself is a stressor, so if you have no experience with stress and anxiety, you really don’t know what to expect,” she said.