Why a Mother's Mental Health Matters

Health Writer
Medically Reviewed
December 6, 2020

From work deadlines to unexpected expenses and 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. While occasional stress isn’t harmful, constant stress during pregnancy can affect both you and your baby.

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.

Even though many OB practices don’t discuss stress and emotional wellness nearly enough, mental health struggles are 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.

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.

Final thoughts

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.”

Health Writer

Margarita Tartakovsky is a Florida-based writer with 10+ years of experience in mental health and wellness. She’s written for websites such as Psych Central, Healthline, and Spirituality and Health. She’s passionate about helping readers feel less alone and overwhelmed and more empowered and hopeful.

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