Stress During Pregnancy: What Every Pregnant Mom Should Know
"Don't stress, it's not good for the baby," I'm betting you'll hear that at least once during your pregnancy, if not multiple times. What these well-intentioned friends and family members don't realize is that telling you to "not stress" is a little like saying, "Don't think about a pink elephant." You're thinking about a pink elephant, right?
I had plenty to be stressed about when I was pregnant with my son. I had "grade 4" centralized placenta previa, which basically means my placenta covered my cervix completely. I was a high risk for premature bleeding and rupture of the placenta, which would mean that my body wouldn't be able to nourish my son. Because of the risk, my doctor put me on extended bed rest for the duration of my pregnancy.
Luckily and miraculously, my placenta split in half late in my third trimester and became a non-issue. My son was safe and was born a healthy 9.5 pounds.
However, for the 4.5 months that I was on bed rest, I had a lot of time to worry and stress. As a developmental psychologist and someone who studies the development of stress and emotions in children, I worried about how stress during pregnancy would affect my baby. I wondered if the baby could feel my stress and if my stress would somehow hurt my son. I wondered certain types of stress were worse for baby and I really wanted to know what I could do, if anything, to reduce the effect of stress on my baby.
Stress = Good?
It turns out that some stress might actually be a good thing. Janet DiPietro, a developmental psychologist from Johns Hopkins University, has spent more than 20 years studying how factors from the outside world and Mom's internal world can impact the developing fetus.
DiPietro and her colleagues found some surprising results: Mothers who reported higher levels of anxiety, general stress and even some moderate depression during pregnancy had children who showed more advanced development (especially motor development) at age 2. Why this may be the case is still a question, however, there is some evidence that there is a relationship between maternal stress and accelerated brain development in newborns.
There are two caveats to this finding: First, all of the mothers in this study were all well-nourished, financially stable and wanted their pregnancies; and second, the anxiety, depression and stress these mothers felt was in the mild to moderate range — not an overwhelming I-can't–function-in-my-life type of stress.
Being pregnant also reduces sensitivity to stress. During pregnancy, women show a reduced response to tests that would normally produce a rush of stress hormones. Pregnant women also have less responsiveness to pain. There is even some evidence that, in comparison to nonpregnant women, pregnant women show less stress in situations meant to induce psychosocial stress. In other words, the condition of pregnancy itself protects both the mother and the baby from stress.
So while stress can still be high enough to be harmful, your body is already protecting you and the baby the best that it can. And here is another interesting fact, a pregnant woman's body is also less responsive to relaxation. Pregnant women showed less of a relaxation response than nonpregnant women when exposed to an 18-minute guided imagery relaxation program. So, when you are pregnant it takes more to stress you out, but it also takes more to feel relaxed.
The U-Shaped Curve Effect
This is good news, but we can't forget all of the research that points to how stress is detrimental to babies. For example, pregnant mothers who experienced a tropical storm or hurricane had more complications at birth and expectant mothers who lived through an earthquake had a greater risk for premature birth.
There are other findings as well linking stress in pregnancy to worse cognitive functioning in children, especially stress about the pregnancy or pregnancy-specific stress, which was the kind of stress I had.
So, does stress affect your baby? It likely depends on what kind of stress and how much stress you have. Specific pregnancy stress, natural disasters, multiple stressful life events, and things you feel like you have no control over may exceed the level that the body can buffer and be over the level that is good for your baby.
Researchers call this the U-shaped curve effect: Too little of something equals no effect or a negative effect, and too much of something equals a negative effect. Right in the middle of the U is a moderate level — that's where you see a positive effect or optimal development.
We see similar findings across development — A little bit of challenge is good for learning, too little and the child won't be engaged, too much and they will burn out. Or take physical activity — moderate exercise leads to optimal outcomes, too much can lead to inflammation and injury and too little can lead to a whole host of health problems.
I couldn't change the risks I had during my pregnancy and I couldn't erase my fears and worries. But I could take some comfort in knowing these things I shared with you here. So, if you are feeling stressed remember these four things and don't be stressed about being stressed.
1. Some stress is good for your baby's cognitive development.
2. The body protects against stress during pregnancy naturally.
3. Yoga and meditation really do work to reduce stress and anxiety during pregnancy.
4. Once your baby is born you'll have a chance to heal the effects of stress during pregnancy.
Ashley Suderland is a child psychologist with a passion for understanding why kids develop the way they do. Now a stay at home parent, she writes about child development and parenting at NurtureandThriveBlog.com.
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