Less stress is best: taking the anxiety out of pregnancy is better for you—and your baby

Claire McCarthyAs a pregnant mother, there’s always something to worry about. You worry about the health of the baby. You worry about what you should or shouldn’t do (because you are worried about the health of the baby). You worry about the delivery. You worry about paying for everything a child needs. You worry about finding good childcare. You worry about whether you’ll be a good parent.

Now there’s a study in the journal Pediatrics telling us that pregnant mothers have something else to worry about: the worrying itself.

Researchers in the Netherlands measured the stress and anxiety of 174 pregnant women using questionnaires as well as by measuring their cortisol levels (certain kinds of elevations of this hormone are associated with stress). After the babies were born, they got information every month from the mothers about the health of their babies. What they found was that the babies born to mothers who were stressed and anxious during pregnancy had more illnesses than those born to less stressed and anxious mothers.

It’s a small study, and it’s not like there was a huge difference in the numbers of illnesses. I’m also a little suspicious of the results; it seems to me that mothers who are more stressed generally might be more likely to interpret a sniffle as an illness than mothers who are happier and calmer.

With the inherent stresses of pregnancy, moms need to take time out for themselves.
With the inherent stresses of pregnancy, moms need to take time out for themselves.

But it’s a study worth paying attention to. This isn’t the first time that a connection has been made between maternal stress during pregnancy and the health of the baby. Previous studies have connected stress with prematurity and lower birth weight. And we certainly know that stress can handicap the immune system.

It’s worth paying attention also because I worry sometimes that pregnancy has become more stressful. Advances in medicine have led to more screening tests during pregnancy, which is mostly a good thing. But sometimes the results are unclear, or confusing, which can be very stressful for parents. And the mere existence of the tests, and the waiting for results, is stressful. It can be hard to just be happy about being pregnant—you have to wait and see what all the tests show.

Add to that the information explosion brought by the Internet. There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of web sites out there telling you exactly what you should (or should not) do during pregnancy, exactly what you should feel, exactly what you should weigh or look like—and many contradict each other. It was bad enough when you just had your friends and relatives giving you advice (sometimes unwanted). Now, with a few keystrokes, hundreds of other people can join in. Yikes.

Some pregnancies are indeed stressful, like when the mother or baby has a health problem, or when things like homelessness, violence, or other trauma are involved. In these cases, health care providers need to work closely with the mother to find supports and resources.

But most pregnancies aren’t that way (thank goodness). In most pregnancies, stress can be managed—if you take control of it. I realize I may be making that sound easier than it is, but it’s worth trying. Here are some suggestions:

  • If your health care providers say that you’re having a healthy pregnancy, believe them. It’s hard, but try not to second guess them. Definitely let them know if you have a question or concern, but trust the people you’ve chosen to care for you.
  • Take an inventory of your worries. Seriously. Write them down. And then make a plan for each one. For example, if there are any medical worries, talk to your doctor or midwife (talking to them early and often about delivery worries is a good idea, too). If you have financial worries, make a budget and see where you can cut expenses. If you’re worried about childcare, start looking early (get ideas from friends). Worried about parenting? Buy books on parenting that resonate with you, or pick them up at your local library. Not that making a plan necessarily takes away all the worry, but it can turn what feels like a cloud around you and the pregnancy into something much more manageable.
  • Take care of yourself. Get some exercise. Pamper yourself whenever you can. Try out a prenatal yoga class—or if that sounds like too much work, devote a little time each day to doing exactly what you feel like doing. Which may be nothing at all, or a nap.

If none of this works, and you’re frequently feeling stressed, let your doctor or midwife know. Let someone help you. Counseling can make a real difference, as can medication (there are many that are safe in pregnancy).

Getting ready for a new baby should be a happy, wonderful thing. Let it be that way. Do it for yourself—and do it for your baby.

3 thoughts on “Less stress is best: taking the anxiety out of pregnancy is better for you—and your baby

  1. I have to wonder if part of the problem is that American women treat pregnancy as a disability. With my first child I was fortunate to have a very sensible OB/GYN. He told me that not lifting anything and sitting around the house acting as if I was delicate was nonsense. He explained that if I needed to lift something to use proper lifting technique, stay well hydrated during exercise, and overall to listen to my body. I was 6 months pregnant mowing my yard in the Texas heat with my toddler in a pack on my back. Of course, my hsuband was away in the war so I had to but I’m sure I could have wimped out if I had wanted to. I had a friend who ran 8 miles the day she went into labor with her 3rd child (a very healthy 8 pound baby). I listened to my body, drank tons of water, rested when I knew I really needed to, and I went on with life. For me, not acting as a disabled person like most of my pregnant friends had done decreased the stress of pregnancy. I tend to have a hard time dealing with pregnant friends, especially the ones who sit at home waiting for hubby to come home to carry in the groceries because they are just too heavy. That attitude towards the state of being pregnant seems to have become more of the norm. No wonder American women become so insanley obese with pregnancy!

    Every pregnancy is different, but for me staying very active and not acting as though I was disabled kept me happy and very healthy throughout my pregnancies. Sitting around with my feet up would have only led to worry and anxiety, not to mention weight gain. I had 1 miscarriage and have delivered 4 very healthy babies.

  2. When we are stressed, it depletes reserves of potassium and magnesium (among other things). The pancreas and heart are among the first to feel the effects of these deficiencies and can become weakened. When this happens, bile production, enzyme production, digestive health and so on can become depressed and sickened, allowing cancer and other serious ailments to enter. So beets helps strengthen the pancreas, which stops the downward cycle somewhat.

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