How Stress During Pregnancy Affects Your Baby

February 6, 2019
Pregnancy can be a stressful time for women. But did you know that prolonged stress and anxiety during pregnancy can cause problems for the baby as well? Read on to find out more!

When you’re pregnant, getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and exercising are all very important. But what about emotions? What role do they play? As it turns out, there’s a relationship between a pregnant mother’s emotional state during gestation and uterine health. Consequently, stress during pregnancy can cause fetal development problems.

Stress can cause alterations in six different types of hormones: cortisol, glucagon, prolactin, testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. These changes affect the pregnant mother as well as the fetus. That’s why mothers who experience severe psychological stress during pregnancy are at a higher risk of complications.

Stress during pregnancy can have physical, physiological, and social implications.

Problems for the newborn baby

Stress during pregnancy can cause physiological, physical, and even social problems. It might affect your sleep patterns or your appetite. You could suffer from frequent headaches, muscular tension, and irritability. Not only that, but stress can weaken the immune system, which increases the possibility of infection.

A stressed pregnant woman sitting on the couch.

Premature birth and low birth weight

Stress can induce labor, which increases the possibilities of your baby being born prematurely (before 37 weeks) or with a low birth weight (less than 5 pounds). These babies tend to suffer from more health problems during childhood, such as frequent illness, growth problems, trouble paying attention, hyperactivity, and motor skills issues.

Respiratory illnesses and physical defects

According to several studies, stress during pregnancy can also cause asthma as well as skin conditions, such as atopic eczema, during the first eight months of a baby’s life.

Stress can also cause physical problems that can affect the baby. One of those is pyloric stenosis, which is a narrowing of the opening of the stomach to the first part of the small intestine. This condition requires immediate surgery.

Stress during pregnancy can affect circulatory activity

We mentioned above the hormones that influence your body the most under stress. Well, after traveling through the bloodstream, these hormones end up in the placenta. The placenta is the baby’s lifeline while in utero, and these extra hormones can actually increase the baby’s heart rate.

Consequently, the less prolonged stress and anxiety a pregnant woman is under, the better. That way, she won’t overwhelm the baby with all those hormones.

Learning and intelligence

If that weren’t enough, cortisol, the hormone that helps adults re-establish homeostasis, can cause serious problems in a baby’s future development. Studies show that the higher the cortisol levels in the amniotic fluid, the lower the baby’s IQ will be in the future.

Having a low IQ isn’t an illness, but having a lower than average IQ could certainly affect a child’s life. In addition to challenges in the classroom, a low IQ increases the risk of suffering from ADD or ADHD. Not only that, but it can be more difficult for an individual with a low IQ to plan strategically or develop impulse control.

A stressed pregnant woman at her office.

Be careful, but don’t panic

Sudden mood changes or prolonged anxiety aren’t trivial. They can have serious health consequences. Your body will let you know when you have built up stress or tension. Maybe you aren’t sleeping well, you’re overworked, or you’re having problems at home or at school. You’re stressed because, on top of all that, you have a tiny life growing inside of you.

Nevertheless, it’s important to point out that sudden, unexpected events that cause stress aren’t dangerous. For example, if a barking dog startles a pregnant woman.

The situations that matter are those that imply some kind of prolonged threat, loss, or damage. These kinds of situations can harm the baby in utero. It’s also important to keep in mind that each woman reacts emotionally different in similar situations. Consequently, stress won’t affect every woman in the same way.

Make sure to get enough rest and don’t be too hard on yourself. Deal with problems step-by-step, eat right, and get enough exercise. Follow your doctor’s instructions. All of these things will help you avoid stress during pregnancy.

Tollenaar, M. S., Beijers, R., Jansen, J., Riksen-Walraven, J. M. A., & De Weerth, C. (2011). Maternal prenatal stress and cortisol reactivity to stressors in human infants. Stress. https://doi.org/10.3109/10253890.2010.499485

Dole, N., Savitz, D. A., Hertz-Picciotto, I., Siega-Riz, A. M., McMahon, M. J., & Buekens, P. (2003). Maternal stress and preterm birth. American Journal of Epidemiology. https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwf176