Stress during Pregnancy

With 39 weeks of pregnancy behind me (and a birth ahead!) I do wonder if I did all I could to optimise the health of my growing baby. Apart from the usual everyday challenges, I had my fair share of emotional turmoil. We know that stress adversely affects foetal health but try to avoid stress in our modern world, especially if you’re working.

 A new study based on 66’000 mothers and their off-spring found maternal stress during pregnancy to be a risk factor for impaired child health. The increase of 16 diseases were recorded, including congenital malformations, infection, mental disorders, respiratory,  digestive, skin, musculoskeletal and genitourinary disease. The article, which appeared in Environmental Health Perspectives, is not the first to find a link between maternal stress and foetal health. Many of the previous studies are based on extreme situations, such as post traumatic stress disorder during 9-11. The gestating women who suffered from PTSD were more likely to pass on a vulnerability to the condition to their children. Another study showed that pregnant women who experienced the 1994 Californian earthquake were found to deliver their babies earlier. A further study showed that victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans were at a markedly increased risk of delivering low birth weight and preterm infants. A large study based on over a million women over 24 years in Denmark showed that women who lost a close relative, spouse or child during pregnancy were more likely to deliver prematurely. Older studies from WWII even show higher incidences of schizophrenia and behaviour disorders from those who lost their fathers during gestation – so their mothers would have experienced extreme grief.

Why is stress so bad for the foetus? The stress hormone, cortisol, is released when the body is under stress. Too much cortisol been shown to disrupt the neurological development of an unborn baby. The scientific evidence backs up what actually seems logical: A pregnant woman should be protected from stressful situations. Many cultures around the globe respect this unwritten law. In Indian tradition the whole community is expected make a pregnant women feel as happy and peaceful as possible because mothers-to-be have a direct link to their babies. In China pregnant women are told to think only peaceful, calming thoughts because they believe that what you think affects your heart and the unborn child. It’s also why those expecting are not supposed to attend funerals as these might attract evil spirits. The Maoris of New Zealand traditionally believe that pregnant women should be guarded with respect because the baby is fully aware of what is going on in its environment. Fathers are taught to perform Haputanga, a form of belly massage, body alignment and acupressure, to ease pregnancy discomforts.

The effects of stress can be counteracted by relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga. Several studies of prenatal yoga found that women who practised felt less stressed and had significantly reduced levels of cortisol in their blood. They were also less likely to experience preterm labour or birth complications. Michel Odent, a world authority on primal health, says singing and being happy has a positive effect on the growing foetus. This is also known to facilitate the body’s absorption of fatty acids so essential for foetal brain development. Some experts argue that moderate stress won’t harm your baby because an enzyme in the placenta breaks down the cortisol in the mother’s blood. They even claim that a little stress may be good for the foetus, accelerating its maturation. And remember, simple things like an early night or a warm bath can work wonders. Use your personal tricks to calm down. The natural hormones of pregnancy make you take things a little slower than usual anyway. If someone rushes or tries to stress you out, take a deep breath, touch your belly and nurture your baby.