Becoming a parent brings with it a whole new spectrum of emotions.
Although there may be joy at the news you’re expecting, you could experience some unexpected emotions too.
You might worry about how you’ll take care of this precious new baby, or what impact it will have on your relationship.
You could feel stressed about your financial situation. Or perhaps you wonder how you’ll cope with the demands of a newborn, or even how a new baby will fit into the dynamics of your family.
But is worrying and stressing bad for your baby?
Read on to find out more about stress in pregnancy, the effects on your baby, and some practical tips about what you can do to reduce it.
Can babies pick up on stress in the womb?
During pregnancy, we consider the mother and baby as a duo or pair.
A pregnant woman and her unborn baby have a shared experience. The baby experiences everything the mother does.
Maternal emotions cause certain hormones to be produced, and they will have an impact on the baby.
The hormones include:
- Oxytocin. Known as the ‘love’ hormone, it triggers feelings of love, and nurturing behaviors. It’s essential for labor, birth, and breastfeeding
- Endorphins. These are our ‘feel good’ hormones, and a natural form of pain relief, released during stress, exercise, or pain
- Adrenaline. Also known as epinephrine, it is responsible for our ‘fight or flight’ response. High adrenaline levels can work against oxytocin in labor and birth
- Cortisol. This is released in any stressful situation and also plays a role in our ‘fight or flight’ response. Cortisol provides the body with glucose for energy, in case we need to make a quick getaway.
Can crying and stress affect unborn baby?
The uterus is a baby’s first home or environment. A baby in the womb becomes attuned to the environment of the mother and can be affected by her emotional state.
Stress acts as a stimulus, causing a specific reaction in the mother’s body. This means the baby will adapt accordingly, creating physical change.
We’re now learning these physiological changes can alter a child’s development and have long lasting consequences.
What happens when we are stressed?
When we enter a stressful state, the brain triggers a response, and goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode. This response causes the release of several hormones that help tackle the perceived danger or threat.
These hormones temporarily divert blood away from ‘non essential’ organs and systems, and supply a greater blood flow and more oxygen to our major muscles and organs. This happens in case we need to make a quick escape.
Glucose is also made available for energy. Our senses become heightened. We become laser-focused and we pick up on potential red flags around us that could mean more danger.
Once this short-term situation resolves, the body returns to normal.
This response is vital and helps protect us and keep us safe. It’s an ancient adaptation, left over from the time when human beings were still part of the food chain and hunted by saber-toothed tigers.
Being constantly stressed, however, leaves us on ‘high alert’ and exposed to these hormones for extensive periods. If we remain in this state for too long, it can lead to chronic health problems and complications.
Stress increases the risk of developing any of the following health conditions:
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Depression and anxiety
- Gastrointestinal problems, such as stomach ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
What will stress do to an unborn baby?
Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline have an effect on the placenta. This affects your baby’s growth.
Adrenaline constricts blood vessels, reducing oxygen supply and blood flow. This can lead to problems for your baby in the womb.
Excessive stress in pregnancy increases the chance of:
- Maternal hypertension (raised blood pressure)
- Intrauterine Growth Restriction (IUGR)
- Poor placental function/placenta abnormalities
- Low birth weight
- Premature babies – prematurity significantly increases infant mortality
- Infection within the uterus
- Obstetric intervention – including induced labor and c section birth due to fetal concerns
- Admission to neonatal intensive care unit
- Delayed onset of breastfeeding, skin to skin, and bonding opportunities after birth.
It also increases the risk of a baby developing chronic health conditions in later life, such as:
- Raised blood pressure
- Cardiovascular disease
Interestingly, researchers are now examining links between the effects of stress in pregnancy and brain development.
It’s thought babies exposed to chronic high levels of stress, particularly in the first trimester, show increased signs of depression, irritability, and lowered IQ.
Stresses might also leave children less equipped to handle stressful situations, which makes it difficult for them to regulate their own emotions. It can also make them more likely to experience mental illness and behavioral problems.
There’s emerging evidence of a link between maternal stress, autism, and ADHD. Although this is relatively new research, it’s believed these neurodiversities are linked to a specific stress-sensitive gene.
Signs that your baby is stressed in the womb
It’s important to know that normal, small amounts of worrying aren’t going to cause problems for you or your baby.
Extreme or ongoing chronic stress appears to be of most concern for both women and babies.
How do you know if your baby is stressed?
Here are several things both you and your doctor can look out for, which could cause complications.
Observing and listening to your baby’s heartbeat is one of the ways your doctor can decide whether your baby is stressed in the womb. This is often diagnosed as ‘fetal distress’.
Your doctor will observe the heart rate pattern over a period of time, using a CTG (cardiotocograph) machine, or an electronic fetal monitor. Used along with ultrasound, this can give your doctor an insight into your baby’s overall health.
It isn’t advised for women to use home dopplers, monitoring devices, or apps to listen to their baby. It can lead to false reassurance. Leave this one to your doctor.
Abnormal fetal heart rate patterns
There are a number of characteristics that can be observed during a CTG monitoring, and show whether your baby is in distress:
- Fetal tachycardia – a consistently raised heart rate of >160 beats per minute
- Fetal bradycardia – a consistently lowered heart rate of <110 beats per minute.
- Decelerations – a temporary drop in the fetal heart rate
- Reduced variability – prolonged reduced variation in the fetal heart rate.
Abnormal patterns can indicate fetal distress, which can lead to oxygen deprivation if not acted on accordingly.
Other signs that your baby is experiencing fetal distress in the womb
- Decreased fetal movement or change in fetal movements. An active baby normally signals a happy and healthy baby. Any change or reduction in baby’s movements can be an early indicator your baby is in distress
- Cramping or back pain. This can be an early sign of miscarriage, preterm labor or urine infection
- Preterm contractions (under 37 weeks) is a likely sign your baby is on their way a little early
- Vaginal bleeding. Bleeding in pregnancy is always a cause for concern. It can indicate problems with the placenta, such a placental abruption or vasa previa. Seek medical advice from your doctor right away if you experience any bleeding in pregnancy
- Abnormal AFI (Amniotic Fluid Index). Whether oligohydramnios (low) or polyhydramnios (high), this is considered a complication of pregnancy. Amniotic fluid levels are an indicator of your baby’s health
- High blood pressure or preeclampsia. Blood pressure problems can affect the way your baby grows and, if very high, increase the chance of your baby needing to be born early
- Sudden weight gain. Pregnancy weight gain outside of the normal range can cause fetal distress
- Meconium. Meconium in amniotic fluid can be an indicator of distress in your baby
- Maternal illness. If you are unwell in pregnancy it may also affect your baby.
How much is ‘too much’ stress?
All women will experience a certain amount of stress in pregnancy and that’s normal. Just because women become pregnant, doesn’t mean life stops happening around them.
Fleeting ‘every day’ stresses, such as running late for an appointment, getting stuck in traffic, or forgetting to pack the kids’ lunch boxes isn’t likely to cause a problem.
Ongoing stress that interferes with your ability to cope with other things is the type that is called chronic. This can be considered ‘too much’, and needs to be managed.
What kinds of stress are harmful?
Stress becomes harmful when it becomes chronic. Stresses might caused by major events such as the death of a loved one, poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, acts of discrimination or racism, or by excessive worrying or fears.
Constant fears about pregnancy, loss of life, or losing the baby, as well as trauma or prolonged stress, all increase stress hormones in the amniotic fluid.
This level of stress is likely to have an impact on your baby’s development.
Everyone deals with stresses differently, but they commonly lead to some unhealthy habits or behaviors, such as:
- Under or over eating
- A reliance on comfort or junk foods, or ‘treats’
- Poor sleep patterns
- Alcohol use
- Drugs or substance misuse.
So no stress is best, right?
Having said all that, it’s impossible to eliminate all elements of stress from our lives.
Although it would be nice to cocoon ourselves in a layer of bubble wrap, and ward off potential worries as they head our way, it’s just not possible.
Added to that, the human brain actually requires a certain amount of stress – not too much, but not too little – for its normal development.
Is it normal if baby moves a lot in the womb?
Generally, an active little one is a reassuring sign all is well with your baby in the womb.
Throughout your pregnancy, you’ll get to know the normal pattern of your baby’s movements. This pattern of movement should continue throughout pregnancy, even as you approach the onset of labor.
There isn’t really such a thing as ‘too much’ fetal movement.
Very occasionally, a sudden short, violent increase in your baby’s movements, can be a sign of acute fetal distress, related to problems with the cord, or placental abruption.
Rest assured, though; this is extremely rare.
Be sure to read Do All Babies Go Quiet Before Labor for more information on normal fetal movements.
Tips to reduce stress in pregnancy
It’s unrealistic to expect we can banish all stressful scenarios from our lives. Stress often comes, though, from the worry we feel when we are in certain situations, or facing certain problems.
Even if we can’t change those situations, taking positive action to tackle the problems can sometimes make us feel a lot better.
Use this time in your pregnancy to make sure a few plans are in place. Set up a system of support for yourself and your partner.
Be sure to:
- Ask for help
- Speak to someone you trust about your concerns
- Seek professional help if – maybe a doula/midwife, support for your business, a cleaner, or child minder
- Tackle your finances
- Get outdoors and exercise
- Consider mindfulness practices, such as yoga, which have been shown to reduce the chance of pregnant women developing depression and anxiety.
Find more practical tips in how to reduce stress in Stress During Pregnancy | How Does Stress Affect Pregnancy?
Trust your instinct
Some health care professionals discount a mother’s intuition in favor of ‘facts’ or ‘data’. Pregnant women, however, are normally very much in tune with their unborn babies, and have a ‘sixth sense’ telling them when things are wrong.
Trust that instinct and be guided by it. No one knows your baby better than you.
If you’re worried about your baby, make sure you speak to your health care provider for further advice.