How Stress During Pregnancy Can Affect Your Baby
For time immemorial women have managed to deal with incredible challenges throughout their lives. Imagine the inequalities we have overcome, for one. Naturally, we have also endured high levels of stress during pregnancy, yet have ensured the very survival of the human race.
Bottom line- these are realities for many women. Surely nature prepared women to be strong and capable of confronting very stressful circumstances.
Information is power, as they say. We want to learn about how to care for ourselves and our babies while using the information available to us to make sound decisions and seek support when necessary. What we don’t want is information to make us feel guilty or more stressed out. That would be counter productive!
Before digging into the subject of stress experienced by expectant mothers, one point should be stressed. Most studies about maternal stress on fetal development are based on the effects of chronic, long term stress versus episodic stress. Some research has suggested that moderate amounts of stress have positive effects on a fetus’ immune system.
We will briefly review effects of stress on babies while in utero but our main focus will be
SOLUTIONS to cope and minimize that stress! A positive thing is we can use science to inform us in working to combat stress. Unlike our primitive ancestors, we have access to resources and knowledge that can help us manage our stress.
The Effects of Stress During Pregnancy
Research has shown that stress in pregnant women may contribute to premature birth, increased risk of miscarriage, lower birth weight, neurological underdevelopment, and a predisposition for childhood behavioral problems.
Studies have linked severe stress during pregnancy to increased incidence of mental health disorders as an adult.
However, according to Katrina C. Johnson, PhD, at Emory University, the studies on stress in pregnancy were not replications of earlier studies. They differed in certain variables such as how stress was measured/defined, therefore we can’t generalize the results to every pregnant woman.
Some evidence shows that expectant mothers who experience chronic stress over an extended period of time have babies who are more anxious right after birth. This was supported by a study headed up by psychology professor, Elysia Davis at the University of Denver.
The study looked at the effects of maternal stress on babies. There was a correlation between a mother’s stress and the infant’s distress after birth. The research team followed these infants through toddler-hood and found they were more fearful than their peers.
A woman who experiences significant stress during pregnancy may be at higher risk of choosing unhealthy coping strategies such as drinking alcohol or smoking. There is no doubt these substances negatively affect the developing baby. With chronic distress a pregnant woman may fail to make healthy food choices and generally neglect self-care.
The Two Most Common Stressors During Pregnancy
There are two things most frequently reported to cause stress during pregnancy: pregnancy-related fear and discord with a woman’s partner.
The first refers to worry about the pregnancy and the well being of her baby. Ironically, while information about maternal stress can be helpful in motivating a mom to reduce her stress level, it can also add to existing anxiety. For this reason, it’s imperative that the expectant mother realizes there are ways to address this anxiety.
The other significant stressor reported by pregnant women is conflict with her partner. It’s understandable that facing the uncertainty what to expect with a baby on the way that a couple will need to work through some apprehension.
If the couple was struggling with issues before the pregnancy, it’s likely these problems will be aggravated with the natural stress that such a huge life change brings.
Let’s review some simple ways to confront anxiety and stress.
Ways to Combat Stress During Pregnancy
Create a Soothing Environment
Intentionally creating a relaxing environment, a place you can go for some alone time or where you can enjoy time with someone you care about will allow you to unwind. In our hectic world with lots of responsililities, it may be a challenge to find that place.
Candles, soft lighting, pleasant aromas, and warm showers are ideas for leaving worries outside of your quiet place. There are even free meditative apps. Pop in your earbuds and disappear for awhile!
Seek the support of a trusted friend or family member. Share concerns with your partner. The simple experience of sharing your concerns out loud can help you reach solutions. In addition, it just feels good to unload your worries with a safe, nonjudgmental person nearby.
Some women live far from family or don’t have close friendships. Online pregnancy forums abound. Reaching out to women who are going through the same experience can be very powerful. Most areas have support groups for expectant mothers. See online resources at the end of article.
We all know that exercise is important for our physical well-being but perhaps we aren’t so aware of its psychological benefits. Physical activity helps reduce muscle tension. Those who aren’t fans of exercise need not be discouraged.
The simple act of going for a walk outside or strolling around the mall help the mood, not only because of the physical activity but the exposure to a new environment can serve as a nice distraction.
Stretching is a simple activity that reduces muscle tension. It doesn’t take a lot of athletic skill to enjoy the benefits of stretching tense muscles.
Remember to check with your healthcare provider before engaging in any exercise program.
Speaking of tension, massage is the perfect solution to loosen tight muscles. If you can’t afford to pay a professional, there are inexpensive tools available on the market today. Some examples include trigger point rollers, foot rollers, and massage stick rollers.
Finding a quiet place and remaining still, while remaining aware of our breathing, can lead us to a calm space. Many people complain of intrusive thoughts interrupting attempts to quiet their minds, however trying to block these thoughts that pop up is counterproductive. When our minds are particularly busy, it will take longer for them to quiet.
Allow your mind time to slow down naturally without making efforts to fight the unwanted thoughts. Simply allow them to pass through. Imagine them passing through your mind like drifting clouds. Eventually, if you avoid struggling against them, you will find your mind in a calmer state.
Sometimes life stressors are so overwhelming we need the guidance of a professional. Professional counseling can help us see things more clearly. Having an objective person to work with can help us find solutions to problems that may feel insurmountable.
In summary, science has shown a link between chronic stress in pregnant women and the potential negative effect on their babies’ development. Rather than causing women additional worry, this information should empower expectant moms to have an increased level of self-awareness. With increased self-awareness and knowledge, women can seek the support they and their child need.
Online Resources: Pregnancy Forums and Support Groups