From work deadlines to unexpected expenses to endless to-do lists, stress is an inevitable part of life. And when you add pregnancy to the mix, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.
Particularly if this is your first child, your worries may seem infinite: Should I eat that? What’s that weird symptom? Is ______OK to do? What if ______?
While occasional stress isn’t harmful, constant stress during pregnancy can affect both you and your baby.
How can you tell the difference between unhealthy stress and garden-variety stress?
Stress during pregnancy becomes a cause for concern when you’re unable to control it or it’s all you think about, says Tracy Scott, a health coach at Parsley Health in New York City. Other signs include: heart palpitations, feeling like you can’t breathe, frequent crying spells, racing thoughts that just won’t quit, and GI distress, says Scott.
Why mom’s mental health matters
Even though many OB practices don’t discuss stress and emotional wellness nearly enough, mental health struggles are actually relatively common. According to a UK study, one in four pregnant women experienced mental health issues. Among the sample of 545 moms-to-be, 15 percent had anxiety, 11 percent had depression, 2 percent struggled with eating disorders, and 2 percent had OCD.
Struggling with greater emotional distress can lead moms to struggle with caring for themselves. Stress can hamper everything from getting enough sleep to nourishing your body. And emotional distress can create a difficult environment for babies in utero (more on that below).
Other consequences of too-much stress during pregnancy? Scott notes that high stress in expectant moms can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. For example, one study found that distress—such as acute somatic symptoms, social dysfunction, anxiety, and insomnia—increased the chances of having a pregnancy hypertensive disorder.
The culprit? While underlying mechanisms are still unknown, one team of researchers speculates that “Distress conditions may directly change the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, leading to increased cortisol levels and associated changes in cellular immunity,” boosting risk for preeclampsia.
The effects of stress on baby
Studies have linked prenatal stress to shorter pregnancies and preterm births (babies born before 37 weeks). Having a premature baby increases the chances of developmental delays in infants and behavioral and mental health concerns in kids.
Even experiencing stress before conception may have consequences. A recent study of 360 women who became pregnant within 4.5 years found that those who felt stressed prior to getting pregnant had shorter pregnancies. While such findings might understandably make you uneasy, they really just underscore the importance of adopting stress-reducing practices, whether you’re currently pregnant or not.
Some research suggests that different types of stress may be associated with different outcomes. For example, negative life events, such as the death of a loved one, have been linked to an increased risk of preterm births. Chronic stress and emotional distress often boost the risk for low birth weight (babies weighing less than five and a half pounds).
Prenatal stress during pregnancy may also predispose infants to illness. A 2020 study of 109 low-income, racially and ethnically diverse expectant moms found that every 1 point increase in reported stress was linked to a 38 percent increase in infectious illness; 73 percent increase in non-infectious illness; and 53 percent increase in other illnesses in infants. Notably, the stress and depression moms experienced after their babies were born weren’t associated with an increase in illness.
Prenatal stress may influence young kids, too. Moms who experienced stress and anxiety and stress during pregnancy were more likely to have toddlers who exhibited temper tantrums, restlessness, and spitefulness, found research in the journal Development and Psychopathology. In a study of 4- to 6-year-olds, researchers found that higher C‐reactive protein in the blood (a marker of inflammation) during the third trimester predicted poorer cognitive flexibility in kids.
The effects of prenatal stress might even follow into adulthood. A study of 3,626 individuals found that participants whose mothers reported stress during pregnancy had a greater chance of developing a mental health condition—such as depression—later in life.
Ways to manage stress during pregnancy
While the above research highlights the negative effects of prenatal stress during pregnancy, it’s also not a crystal ball. Plenty of healthy babies are born to super stressed-out moms. Plus, whether you’re dealing with short-term or long-term stress, the good news is that you can counteract its potential complications with simple habits. These are some stress-relieving method’s Scott uses with her pregnant members at Parsley Health:
Meditation seems to top every self-help list, but that’s because it works. For example, a small randomized controlled trial found that expectant moms who participated in a mindfulness training program were 50 percent less likely to give birth early than women who didn’t go through the program. Scott recommends the app Expectful, which offers guided meditations for all three trimesters to help you connect with your baby (and yourself).
Practice prenatal yoga.
Prenatal yoga helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, strengthens the connection between your mind and body, and bolsters your bond with your baby, says Scott. A 2015 research review found that women who practiced prenatal yoga had lower pain, anxiety, depression, and stress levels, and were less likely to be diagnosed with pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia.
Pinpoint your stress triggers.
Identify what’s currently bothering you, and brainstorm several practical, simple solutions. As Scott says, “While there is always an element of the unknown—I used to feel like I was only as good as my last sonogram!—try to stay focused on what is true and what you can control.” For example, you can purchase a comfy pregnancy pillow to help you sleep, or add more veggies to your diet.
Minimize unhealthy habits.
When stress strikes, what are some less-than-helpful things you do? Maybe you lash out at a loved one, isolate yourself, forget to eat, and zone out on your phone. Pay attention to how you typically react to stress during pregnancy, and aim to reduce these unhealthy tendencies.
Journal your heart out.
Make journaling part of your daily routine, as it’s a great way to process emotions and make worrisome thoughts feel more manageable. Simply carve out 10 to 15 minutes, jotting down anything that’s on your mind or heart.
Have your doctor on speed dial.
When you’re pregnant with your first child (or, let’s face it, your fourth), it’s easy to let every change rattle you. Parsley Health members regularly note that having a healthcare team they can contact at any time is a huge stress relief on its own.
Connect with others.
Social support is critical for expectant moms (and, of course, everyone!). Discuss your worries with your partner or a trusted friend, says Scott. She also suggests joining a moms-to-be support group (virtual or in person). “If it is local to your area, it becomes an immediate group of people to meet up with post-baby—a nice Mom tribe,” she adds.
Increase physical intimacy.
According to Scott, some women’s sexual desires spike during pregnancy, making it a good time to physically connect with your partner and decompress. Not in the mood? Harness the power of touch by cuddling on the couch or holding hands.
Try not to let studies on stress further stress you out. While stress can become harmful, small healthy habits do make a significant difference in easing emotional distress and relaxing your brain and body.
And, as one researcher notes, “A secure bond between the mother and child after the birth can neutralize negative effects of stress during pregnancy.” So, says Scott, if an unusually stressful time arises during pregnancy—like a pandemic! —cultivating your connection with your newborn can be incredibly powerful.
“This is also good news for adoptive parents or parents who used a surrogate,” adds Scott. “In the event there was some sort of emotional trauma that the parents-to-be were not aware of, the post-birth secure bond is a bigger indicator of future well-being.”