Does stress hurt my baby during pregnancy?
This is a question so many moms who are facing pregnancy complications ask day in and day out.
When you have a high-risk pregnancy, your stress is tremendously high.
Worrying about what’s going to happen to your baby and being hypervigilant about sensations in your body that might be a sign something bad is happening skyrockets your anxiety.
Add on to that financial stress from having to be on bed rest, the guilt of how much work you’re leaving for your co-workers and partner plus the loneliness of not knowing who to talk to about what you’re going through can also negatively impact your stress levels.
The answer to whether your stress hurts your baby, like most answers in gynecology, is not black or white.
Stress does and doesn’t affect your baby during pregnancy.
The short answer is that stress can impact your baby negatively. How it affects your baby and by how much varies based on a lot of factors.
What you need to know first about stress and your baby.
Before being able to answer whether your baby is affected by the stress you’re under, the first step is to figure out exactly how stressed you really are.
With 81% of us believing we are managing our stress better than we actually are, it’s important to be aware of how much pressure and tension your body is actually under during your pregnancy, especially if it’s high-risk.
So if you haven’t already, check out Part 1 of the Stress in Your High-Risk Pregnancy series and take the quiz to see how stressed you really are.
Stress is an inevitable part of life.
It’s impossible to avoid stress completely, but you want to learn how to cope with it so it has minimal impact on you and your baby emotionally and physically.
Being clear about exactly how stressed you actually are is the first step in being able to do that. (Tweet that!)
What types of stress affects your baby?
Many websites will give you a list of common stressors that could possibly affect your baby.
That is the wrong way to think about stress during pregnancy.
The reality is, situations aren’t stressful.
Stress is determined by our reaction to situations. (Tweet that!)
For some moms, losing a job during pregnancy is extremely stressful that can leave them feeling anxious for weeks at a time. For others, losing a job is stressful for a few days or may even be stress-relieving!
Similarly, being on bed rest, having a new medical diagnosis or requiring weekly ultrasounds can all bring about a different stress response depending on each individual.
It’s not the types of stress that affect your baby but your stress responses that affect your growing miracle.
Mild stress responses, such as the anxiety as you wait for test results from your doctor, don’t necessarily have an impact on your baby.
After the initial spike in stress, your body resets and repairs itself as you calm down and your body doesn’t feel the negative effects of that stressful moment.
Reactions that are intense and last for days or weeks (such as worrying constantly, not being able to turn off your mind even when you’re trying to relax, not sleeping enough or having heart palpitations, etc.) are the ones more likely to affect your baby.
During pregnancy, your stress levels directly impact your hormones and your nervous system.
These changes can then be communicated to your baby as he or she is growing and developing inside of you.
The key is not how stressed you are at any given moment.
What’s most important is you are able to feel relief from your high-stress moments frequently.
That reprieve can significantly impact your overall health and wellbeing and lowers the likelihood that your stress will affect your baby.
How does your stress response impact your baby’s development?
If your stress levels remain high and you don’t feel any relief, your body experiences changes to your nervous system and hormonal systems, which in turn can affect your baby’s developing brain.
Stress hormones in your blood can go into your baby’s blood increasing the risk of emotional and behavioral issues down the road.
According to the most widely accepted theory, your endocrine system goes into overdrive when you are stressed or highly anxious and your body produces high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
A chronic activation of this system eventually causes it to lose it’s ability to work properly.
Thus, it becomes harder for you to manage your stress and protect your baby from that stress too.
This stress hormone circulates through your blood and makes its way to the baby.
Since your baby is still developing and is highly impacted by his or her environment, your baby’s brain starts to believe high levels of cortisol are normal.
This can impact your child’s ability to manage stress in the future as well as increase the likelihood of your child experiencing other physical, emotional and behavioral problems.
Studies show that unmanaged prenatal stress is associated with babies who are difficult to soothe, have more trouble falling asleep and more frequently have temper tantrums especially in new situations.
Other research studies have shown that high stress during pregnancy can also increase the likelihood of your baby developing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), childhood anxiety and depression, and motor delay among other physical and emotional problems due to how the brain developed in response to the highly stressful environment in the womb.
Stress reduces uterine blood flow and restricts baby’s growth.
Stress impacts blood flow in your body even when you are not pregnant. But during pregnancy, researchers have found that this reduced blood flow can impact your baby.
Researchers have found that in moms who are highly stressed or anxious, blood flow is reduced in the arteries going to the uterus, which impacts your baby’s growth.
A study published in France showed that chronic anxiety, that resulted in changes in blood flow within the uterine arteries increased the rates of stillbirth and was linked to low birthweight. (Relier, 2001)
There is good news!
The intention of this blog is post is not to stress you further but to show you how much hope there is for a healthier pregnancy.
You can protect your baby even during a high-risk pregnancy.
If you’re able to manage your stress and keep it low during pregnancy, the risk to your baby for developing behavioral, emotional or physical challenges after birth is also low.
However, if your pregnancy thus far has been high-stress, lowering your stress levels now can still have a tremendous positive impact for a healthier pregnancy and lowered risks for your baby.
In fact, a study published a few years back showed that professional support during pregnancy can lower preterm birth rates by at least 54%! (Mamelle, 2001)
So much of your high-risk pregnancy may feel out of your control, but this one aspect of is in your hands.