Stress During Pregnancy and it’s Affects on the Unborn Child

I have two close friends who are both first time mothers to be and although both are in healthy relationships and are overall healthy individuals, both of them are incredibly stressed, so much to the point that they both at times get very dysthymic, have trouble eating, sleeping, being intimate, feeling attractive and are easily irritable. 

When asked what exactly they are stressed about, they both answered that they are worried about being good mothers, about being financially secure enough to properly take care of their child, how their child will change their lives and mostly, if their child will be healthy despite all the signs that they are having a normal, healthy pregnancy. 

I found that last part to be very interesting. Their biggest concern was that their child is developing normally and that they will have a healthy child, yet the stress that they are experiencing may play a vital role in the health of their baby. 

Stress is a Part of Life

We all experience stress and pregnant women often experience stress more than any of us. Often times women who are pregnant are busy trying to run house holds, hold down jobs and balance a busy schedule. While stress is normal, how much stress is too much and does it affect the fetus?

It used to be considered a myth that too much stress affects the unborn child, but researchers, including Dr. Calvin Hobel, a perinatologist (an obstetrician who practices maternal-fetus medicine) in Los Angeles who studies the affects of stress on pregnancy, are providing more and more evidence that stress is bad for pregnant women and their unborn child. Stress not only increases the risk of pre-term labor, but also a number of problems after the child is born. 

Women who are stressed release hormones and those hormones “wash” over the fetus. Genetically the fetus is forced to react to environmental cues about how to best construct and respond within the capabilities of that specific gene to what is going on. According to Dr. Pathik Wadhwa, assistant professor of behavioral science, obstetrics and gynecology at University of Kentucky College of Medicine, “The fetus builds itself permanently to deal with this kind of high-stress environment, and once it’s born may be at greater risk for a whole bunch of stress-related pathologies.” 

Some of the most recognizable effects of maternal stress on pregnancy: pre-term births and low birth weight.

Baby’s who are born premature (before 37 weeks) are at risk of many complications later such as developmental delays, learning disabilities, chronic lung disease, pervasive developmental disorders, and even death. There is even research suggesting that babies who express stress in utero are more likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure as adults. More recent evidence is pointing to stress in utero affecting the baby’s temperament and possibly IQ. Baby’s who experience a lot of stress in utero are more likely to show signs of depression and irritability and are less likely to tune out repeated, unimportant stimuli, a predictor of IQ. 

Who the Mother is and What She is Like During Pregnancy Affects Who the Baby Will Turn Out To Be

According the the biopsychosocial model, we are who we are determine in part by biological, psychological and environmental influences. Mother’s who experience a lot of stress and anxiety during pregnancy are bathing their unborn child in those chemicals that affect the baby. Stress causes the mother’s nervous system to stimulate the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine which are stress hormones that restrict blood flow and oxygen to the fetus. Research also shows that the placenta in pregnant women who are stressed, releases more corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) which tells the body how long a pregnancy should last and helps the fetus reach maturation. This is probably largely responsible for the increase in pre-term birth and low birth weight. 

How much stress is too much stress?

It’s hard to say, it really comes down to the woman, her personality and how she copes with stress. One woman can work two or three jobs and be fine, while one woman may find herself in trouble just trying to hold down one job. The woman needs to listen to her body, her doctor and even her family member’s if they are worried that she is too stressed or anxious. Studies show that extra help for the mother to relive some of the psycho-social stress as well as work leaves as early as 24 weeks cut down on the risk of premature birth by about 21%

Ways to Relieve Stress

Somethings pregnant women can do to relieve stress include yoga (not strenuous yoga of course), biofeedback, guided imagery and deep breathing techniques. Also, having a great support network is crucial. It is important for the pregnant woman to slow down when she starts feeling stressed, even if that means cutting back on certain things and delegating tasks to others. 

Pregnant Women Should Take this Questionnaire! 

One way to measure your stress is to take this questionnaire developed by Dr. Hobel. For every question answer “yes”, “no” or “sometimes”. If you answer “yes” or “sometimes” to three or more questions, Dr. Hobel believes you may be stressed enough to warrant talking to a counselor or your physician to help put together an intervention to help protect you and your unborn child from stress.   

  1. I feel tense
  2. I feel nervous
  3. I feel worried
  4. I feel frightened
  5. I have trouble dealing with problems
  6. Things are not going well 
  7. I cannot control things in my life
  8. I am worried that my baby is abnormal
  9. I am concerned that I may lose my baby
  10. I am concerned that I will have a difficult delivery
  11. I am concerned that I will be unable to pay my bills
  12. I live apart from my partner or spouse
  13. I have extra-heavy homework
  14. I have problems at work
  15. Have you and your partner or spouse had any problems?
  16. Have you been threatened with physical harm?

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