“The common conception that a mother’s psychological state can influence her unborn baby is to some extent substantiated by the literature,” write Ali S. Khashan, M.Sc., of the University of Manchester, England, and colleagues. “Severe life events during pregnancy are consistently associated with an elevated risk of low birth weight and prematurity.”
The team studied data from 1.38 million Danish births occurring between 1973 and 1995, and found out that children of women who experienced the death of a close relative during their first trimester had a 67% greater risk of developing schizophrenia and related disorders later on.
“Risk associated with exposure to a well-defined, objective stressful event confined to the first trimester of pregnancy suggests a number of possible mechanisms,” the authors write. Chemicals released as part of the mother’s stress response may have an effect on the fetus’ developing brain. It appears that these effects are strongest in early pregnancy, when there is less of a protective barrier between the mother and her developing fetus.
Other research has linked stress during pregnancy with preterm delivery, lower birth weight, and other factors, so creating an effective stress management plan is especially important during pregnancy.
If you are pregnant, obviously you can’t control everything that happens in your life during your pregnancy. However, there are some things you can do to limit your exposure to stress, and lessen your body’s response to stress. The following are some recommended stress management practices that are useful for any time in your life, but especially so during pregnancy:
Cut Down on Lifestyle StressIf there are any unnecessary stressors in your life, cut them out now. This includes stress at work, daily hassles, and relationships that are full of conflict. (See this piece for more on limiting lifestyle stress.)
Effectively Manage the Stress In Your LifeBecause you can’t eliminate all the stress in your life (and wouldn’t want to if you could), it’s important to find strategies that help you deal with the stress that you do encounter. Yoga, meditation and breathing exercises can be especially helpful during pregnancy, and may even make for an easier delivery. Regular practice of stress management techniques can also provide you with some resilience toward stress, and some tools for managing more serious stressors that you may encounter, over which you may have no control. (Use this tool to find stress relievers that best fit your personality and lifestyle.)
Take Care of YourselfYou probably already know that stress can affect your health, but are you aware that your health can also affect your stress levels? If you haven’t had enough sleep, good nutrition or down time, you may be more reactive to stress in your life. The same goes for excessive caffeine and other unhealthy habits. It’s important to take care of your body as a regular part of a healthy lifestyle, but it’s especially important during pregnancy. (See this article for more on self care strategies.)
Maintain a Positive AttitudeThe stress you experience can be heavily influenced by your attitude. A negative attitude can make your stressors feel more frustrating and insurmountable, while a positive attitude can make them seem to shrink or fade away. Working on your perspective is a great way to cut down on the stress in your life without having to make major changes in said life. (To get an idea of whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, and find resources for positive thinking, take the Optimism Quiz.)
Get Help If You Need ItHaving a child is a major life change, and you may need support from those around you, both during pregnancy and after the baby arrives. In the same vein, if you face heavy emotional challenges that are difficult for you to deal with, psychotherapy may be a very helpful option. Either way, don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
While pregnancy can be challenging, and life events can be unexpected, these stress management strategies can help you protect yourself and your unborn child from some of the negative effects of stress. Happy pregnancy!
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Diego MA, Jones NA, Field T, Hernandez-Reif M, Schanberg S, Kuhn C, Gonzalez-Garcia A. Maternal Psychological Distress, Prenatal Cortisol, and Fetal Weight. Psychosomatic Medicine, September-October 2006.
Glynn LM, Schetter CD, Hobel CJ, Sandman CA. Pattern of Perceived Stress and Anxiety in Pregnancy Predicts Preterm Birth.. Health Psychology, January 2008.
Khashan AS, Abel KM, McNamee R, Pedersen MG, Webb RT, Baker PN, Kenny LC, Mortensen PB. Higher Risk of Offspring Schizophrenia Following Antenatal Maternal Exposure to Severe Adverse Life Events. Archives of General Psychiatry, February 2008.