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Stress may be a part of our life to such an extent that we think it is a normal and perfectly acceptable thing. But our bodies disagree. Excessive stress can easily mess up our health at many levels, from disrupting hormone balance and sleep to entirely consuming our lives on a physical and mental level. Stress during pregnancy does not only affect the mother, but the baby as well. In fact, the mental, psychological and emotional state of the mother-to-be is now recognized as a significant factor affecting the short and long-term development of the baby. According to scientific evidence, we have too many reasons to stay relaxed and calm during pregnancy – it really makes a grand difference for our babies…
Prenatal stress affects directly the developing baby
The more stressed the pregnant mother is, the higher the amounts of cortisol (the stress hormone) in saliva, blood and eventually in the amniotic fluid. In other words, stress during pregnancy means that the developing baby forms and grows up in an environment rich in stress hormones, which directly affect it.
There is significant evidence that prenatal stress is associated with earlier delivery and more difficult temperament of the baby, especially in the first few months of life . Abundant levels of cortisol during pregnancy may interfere with the proper physical and emotional development of the baby and to a certain extent can even “program” infant behavior – for the worse that is. More specifically, babies exposed to high cortisol levels weigh less at birth, have more emotional and active temperaments, cry more and their mothers report that they are more difficult to deal with [1,2,3]. Low birth weight is subsequently associated with increased infant fear and distress . But it’s not only that. High levels of prenatal stress and cortisol are also associated with infant delayed mental and motor development . The authors of the study which came up with these shocking results state that:
“Increased maternal stress during pregnancy seems to be one of the determinants of temperamental variation and delay of development of infants and may be a risk factor for developing psychopathology later in life”
These unexpected negative effects of prenatal stress are further confirmed by more recent studies, which find that stress and anxiety in pregnancy are associated with reduced reading scores and school achievements in 10 year old girls (but surprisingly not in boys!) . It is possible that the delayed mental and emotional development of infants may be indirectly reflected in the academic performance much later in life. Another piece in the puzzle of prenatal stress is the recent evidence showing that it affects the immune responses in babies . The infants of women, who experienced stressful pregnancies, showed weaker antibody production to Hep B vaccine, showing that their immune system could not respond as it did in infants whose mothers had relaxed pregnancies.
Often anxiety, stress and depression go hand in hand. Prenatal depression has been consistently associated with earlier labor and neuropsychological problems for babies, just like prenatal stress. Research shows that preterm children of mothers who experience depression during pregnancy are at increased risk for anxiety disorders in pre-school age (between 3-6 years old) .
What is more interesting is that prenatal depression is more common that postpartum depression and predicts increased risk for postpartum depression as well. Tiffany Field from the Touch Research Institute (University of Miami, School of Medicine) tells us that :
“Prenatal depression has been associated with excessive activity and growth delays in the fetus as well as prematurity, low birthweight, disorganized sleep and less responsiveness to stimulation in the neonate.
Infants of depressed mothers have difficult temperament, and later in development attentional, emotional and behavioral problems have been noted during childhood and adolescence”
How to have a calm and happy pregnancy
Obviously experiencing stress, depression or anxiety in pregnancy is not something that most women actively choose. Usually it comes as a side effect of our lifestyle, work or family responsibilities. However, we need to consciously and proactively deal with this invisible danger that could take so many things away from our babies. Here are some science-proven ways to relax and enjoy the unique and precious time of pregnancy.
I have written extensively about prenatal yoga as a wonderful, holistic and effective way to reduce stress during pregnancy, among other things (like back pain and preterm birth and pregnancy complications!). You can read the full article here.
Meditation is a another modality, which has been shown to help stressed people wind down and become more mindful when it comes to their reactions to daily events. Prenatal meditation is a great way to give your mind and body a quiet, safe space to relax, while helping your baby grow healthy (and calm) in the long-run.
Flotation is a new way for deep relaxation, which also helps our body absorb the most important relaxing mineral: Magnesium. Essentially, you float in a tank full of warm water saturated in Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate). The feeling of weightlessness (also called sensory deprivation) is the best environment to relax and disconnect from anything that stresses you out. At the same time, the skin naturally absorbs magnesium from the salty water (aka transdermal magnesium therapy), helping even further the relaxation process. Private flotation services exist in most big cities, so make sure you check out if there is such a center near you. I sure miss my time floating in London…
 de Weerth C. et al. 2003. Prenatal maternal cortisol levels and infant behavior during the first 5 months. Early Hum Dev. 74(2):139-51.
 Baibazarova E. et al.2013. Influence of prenatal maternal stress, maternal plasma cortisol and cortisol in the amniotic fluid on birth outcomes and child temperament at 3 months. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 38(6):907-15.
 Buitelaar JK et al. 2003. Prenatal stress and cognitive development and temperament in infants. Neurobiol Aging. 24 Suppl 1:S53-60; discussion S67-8.
 Li et al., 2013. Maternal life stress events in pregnancy link to children’s school achievement at age 10 years. Journal of Pediatrics, 162.
 O’Connor T.G. et al. 2013. Prenatal maternal anxiety predicts reduced adaptive immunity in infants. Brain, Behavior, & Immunity, 32.
 Rogers et al., 2013. Late preterm birth, maternal depression, and risk of preschool psychiatric disorders. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 52 (3).
 Field, T. 2011 Prenatal depression effects on early development: A review. Infant Behavior and Development, 34 (1).