Calmer Pregnancy, Healthier Child

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 autism.

10 Simple Ways to Leave Stress Behind

Mom’s Stress and Prenatal Development

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 aging processes.
  • 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 Manage Stress

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 there.
  • Put your feet up, listen to soothing music, and hum along.
  • 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.)

More Tips for Managing Stressful Situations

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