Stress During Pregnancy: Here’s How It Can Impact Your Growing Baby
Pregnancy is a time of many different emotions.
Lots of changes are occurring both in your life and in your body.
It’s normal to stress about a variety of things during these months.
You may be asking yourself questions like:
Is the baby growing ok?
What’s the risk of miscarriage?
How much will it cost to raise a child?
Am I eating well enough to nourish the baby?
What are my birth options?
How will the baby’s arrival change my dynamic with my partner?
Pregnant women have a lot to plan and process during their nine months.
So don’t worry if you experience moderate amounts of stress here and there.
What you want to watch out for is unmanaged, chronic stress.
Research shows that high levels of stress can negatively impact maternal mental health and pregnancy outcomes such as premature birth.
How Stress Impacts The Body
Chronic stress can take a toll on anybody – pregnant or not.
Symptoms of stress can include:
- Elevated blood pressure
- Elevated heart rate
- Short and shallow breathing
- Trouble sleeping
- Inability to focus
- Loss or increase of appetite and food cravings
- Muscle tension or aches
- Jaw clenching
- Digestive problems
Being in constant stress mode leads to a continuous increase in stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
High cortisol levels weaken the immune system and can dampen fertility.
The Effects of Stress On Expectant Mothers
Unchecked and constant maternal stress can impact women’s physical health and is a risk factor for pregnancy and postpartum mental conditions like prenatal anxiety and postnatal depression.
Stress can cause you to make poor food choices or engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms.
It can raise your blood pressure or worsen existing chronic conditions.
A pregnant woman’s immune system is already compromised, so that further stress can put her at an even greater risk for health conditions like the flu or digestive issues.
It’s crucial to minimize stress exposure as much as possible during pregnancy.
Learning healthy coping mechanisms and effective stress management techniques can also help expecting moms find more peace.
Keep reading for specific ways to manage stress and increase inner calm.
How Extreme Prenatal Stress Impacts Your Growing Baby
You and your baby are interconnected via the placenta.
Stress hormones from your body signal the placenta to produce its own stress hormones. (2)
In times of extreme stress, cortisol can travel to your baby through the placenta and amniotic fluid.
Stress hormones like cortisol inhibit your baby’s growth and so, even if you deliver at full term, your baby may have low birth weight.
A 2017 study published in the journal Stress also suggests that long-term stress can lead to increased stress hormones in amniotic fluid as early as the second trimester. (3)
Studies in the fields of obstetrics, pediatrics, and psychiatry show that chronic and extreme maternal stress during pregnancy can also impact birth outcomes: (4)
- Increased risk of miscarriage
- Shorter gestation time
- Increased risk of pre-eclampsia
Susan Andrews, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of ‘Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms: How Breaking Free From Stress Can Boost Your Baby’s Potential’ states that:
“A mounting body of evidence clearly links sustained high levels of stress and anxiety during pregnancy to many of today’s major issues of birth and childhood, such as low birth weight and preterm birth, difficulty coping in emotional situations, learning disabilities, attention deficit, and childhood anxiety.
When I investigated how stress affects the unborn, I discovered a huge number of very credible research studies stating that high levels of stress do indeed affect the term length of pregnancy, the weight of the child as well as their physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development.” (5)
Expecting moms with prenatal depression are also at risk of preterm labor according to a prospective study published in the publication Birth. (6)
The Effects Of Long-Term Stress On Child Health
Research also suggests that these adverse effects can extend beyond the first year of your child’s life.
Babies born with low birth weight have an increased risk of developing conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity later in life. (2)
Mom’s long-term and extreme stress can interfere with a baby’s brain development and has also been linked to ADHD and teenage depression. (7) (8)
How Much Stress Is Too Much?
Severe stress levels often affect your ability to function in day-to-day activities and can lower your quality of life.
Some major stressors that can contribute to extreme and prolonged stress are:
- Traumatic life events such as the death of a loved one
- Extreme financial hardship
- Abusive or chaotic relationships at home
- The diagnosis of a terminal illness
PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) can often go diagnosed or untreated, and yet it can be a risk factor for prenatal and postpartum complications.
If your stress levels are affecting your ability to carry out daily tasks or you’re having trouble sleeping talk to your OB-GYN or healthcare provider about your options.
8 Effective Stress Management Techniques (Self-Care Tips)
- Sleep well – practice good sleep hygiene and remember that quality sleep is a form of self-care. Here’s a guided sleep meditation to help you unwind and drift off.
- Eat well – everything you eat and drink becomes the building blocks for your baby’s body. Choose whole, organic, real foods as much as possible. Here’s a quick guide on clean-eating.
- Hydrate well – staying hydrated means your amniotic fluid will be abundant and healthy. Aim to drink at least 1.5 – 2 liters of alkaline water daily. (Stay away from plastic water bottles as they contain BPA.)
- Move Your Body Mindfully – prenatal yoga, tai chi, and qigong and are all proven relaxation-inducing activities.
- Breathe Consciously – Belly breathing slowly and deeply helps to activate your body’s calming mechanisms, often in a matter of minutes.
- Meditate daily, even if it’s just five minutes – Brain scan studies suggest that major structural brain changes can occur with daily meditation practice in just 8 weeks. (9) If you’re new to the practice here’s a short 5-minute guided meditation to get you started.
- Spend time in nature – Soaking up nature, walking amongst the trees, and “forest bathing” have all been shown to reduce stress hormones. (10) Make time for this ‘nature therapy’ by walking around your neighborhood, going to the park, or doing a gentle hike.
- Talk it out – Whether it be therapy, coaching, social support, or trusted family members, talking about your fears and concerns can be very cathartic and therapeutic. You don’t have to keep it all inside, mama. Expressing is healthy and a form of self-care.