Toxic stress

Stress is an inevitable part of life. People experience stress early, even before they are born. A certain amount of stress is normal and necessary for survival.  Positive stress helps children develop the skills they need to cope with and adapt to new and potentially threatening situations throughout life.

However, the beneficial aspects of stress shrink when the stress is severe enough that a child cannot cope because the stressor lasts for too long or is too intense.  When this happens, it can lead to both short and long term negative health effects.  These types of stressors are referred to as toxic stress and include social issues surrounding inequity like poverty, racism, abuse and others.

These toxic stressors can also lead to low birth weight or babies who are born before 37 weeks. Mothers from communities of color and low-income families are disproportionately affected compared to their white counterparts.

Communities of color face more toxic stress than their white counterparts, micro-aggression and racism are topics these mothers face daily.  Within the last decade experiences of racism have been linked to three times as many adverse birth outcomes including low-birthweight and preterm births.  In multiple studies, women of color living in lower income areas experienced more racism and were at a higher risk of delivering a low birthweight baby than their white counterparts living in better neighborhoods. This suggests that having a higher income can be a moderate the relation between racism and birth outcomes.


Collins, J. W., David, R. J., Handler, A., Wall, S., & Andes, S. (2004). Very Low Birthweight in African American Infants: The Role of Maternal Exposure to Interpersonal Racial Discrimination. American Journal of Public Health,94(12), 2132-2138.

Middlebrook, J., and Audage, N. (2008). “The Effects of Childhood Stress on Health Across the Lifespan.” PsycEXTRA Dataset,

Nuru-Jeter, A., Dominguez, T.P., Hammond, W.P. et al. (2009). “It’s the skin you’re in”: African American Women talk about their experiences of racism. An exploratory study to develop measures of racism and birth outcome. Maternal and Child Health Journal 13: 29