Most women are well aware of the harm that can be done by cigarettes
or alcohol during pregnancy. Yet many don’t realize that too much stress can be
at least as harmful to a baby in the womb, according to Susan Andrews, PhD, a
clinical neuropsychologist and author of Stress
Solutions for Pregnant Moms.
“Mounting evidence links sustained high stress and anxiety in
pregnant women to some of today’s biggest issues in infants and children,” says
Dr. Andrews. Examples include low birth weight, preterm birth, childhood
anxiety, learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and
Research suggests that a pregnant woman’s stress can affect
her developing baby’s brain and body in several ways.
Immune system. In a 2012 study in Allergy, more than 400 pregnant
women filled out a questionnaire that asked about stressful life situations,
such as racial discrimination or a drop in income. High stress in the pregnant
moms was associated with higher levels of IgE, a type of antibody associated with
allergic reactions, in the umbilical cord blood of their newborns. This suggests
that prenatal stress may influence babies’ developing immune systems,
increasing their risk for allergies and asthma later on.
Cell aging. A 2011 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences included 94 healthy young adults whose mothers had experienced
psychological trauma during their pregnancies. At age 25, the grown children already
showed signs of faster-than-normal cell aging. This suggests that prenatal
stress may affect the development of chromosome regions that control cellular
Nervous and endocrine systems. A third line of research
has focused on the development of the neurological and hormonal pathway that
controls the body’s stress response. If a pregnant woman is under stress, her
blood is likely to contain a high level of the stress hormone cortisol. And
this cortisol-spiked blood circulates inside her baby before birth, too. According
to a leading theory, this may have lasting effects.
Dr. Andrews explains, “The smart little fetal brain goes, ‘Wow, if I’m supposed
to have so much cortisol around all the time, then I don’t need as many
receptor cells to take the cortisol back out.’ In effect, the developing brain
may cut back on the number of cells that are meant to help the child deal with
stress in the future.”
How Pregnant Moms Can
Pregnancy itself—and all the relationship, work, and
financial changes that come with it—can be stressful. Fortunately, Dr. Andrews
says there are quick, easy ways to manage stress when you’re pregnant. The
first step is to check in with yourself regularly throughout the day and see
how much stress you’re feeling at that moment.
Then, if you notice that you’re feeling tense, anxious, hurried,
or harried, you can take action to reduce your stress. These are among the more
powerful stress-busting strategies, based on a rating scale devised by Dr.
Andrews for her book:
Take a series of slow, deep breaths while
focusing on bringing fresh oxygen to tight muscles and melting away tension
Put your feet up, listen to soothing music, and
Stroll outside while soaking up the sights
and sounds of nature.
Take a nap that lasts less than 45 minutes,
but leaves you feeling rested and refreshed.
Pamper yourself with a professional massage or prenatal yoga class. (Be sure to tell your massage therapist or yoga instructor that you're pregnant.)