Can Your Pregnancy Stress Actually Affect Your Baby?
There are a couple of moments in each of my pregnancies that I replay over and over in my head.
There was the time I was at work, and I heard an enormous BOOM, like a bomb going off. I worked in NYC, and it was just a few years after 9/11, so everyone was on edge. There were a few minutes where no one knew where the noise had come from and I was legit panicking. As in, my heart was racing, I was sweating bullets, and I was sure I was going to die. I actually got in a cab and left work early, because I just had a feeling like I needed to GTFO of the city immediately.
It wasn’t a bomb, I found out later, just a loud sound from construction outside. But I panicked hard, and it took a few solid days to fully recover from that.
Then, there were those weeks during my second pregnancy that my anxiety was legitimately out of control. I was sick as a dog with morning sickness, and I spent all evening in bed terrified about being pregnant. I wasn’t sure if having another child was going to be a huge mistake, and I was sure that something was going to be very wrong with my child.
None of this was rational—and looking back, I think I had some prenatal anxiety going on—but it was my reality for a few intense weeks of that pregnancy.
All of this is to say that there were times in both of my pregnancies where I was dealing with very intense stress and anxiety, and I have definitely worried over the years about the ways my mental state may have affected my children.
I worried about this during pregnancy, and I worry about this now anytime my kids seem off, or when this or that health scare has popped up during the years.
Like, did I completely mess my kids up because of stress during pregnancy? I know I’m not the only one who has wondered the same …
How Stress During Pregnancy Impacts Babies
Well, I have some good—and some not so good—news for us all.
Stress during pregnancy can definitely have physical and developmental consequences for our kids. But it has to be pretty significant stress for that to be the case—and most importantly, there are things you can do both during and after pregnancy to mitigate this.
Let’s start with the not-so-good part.
There’s lots of evidence that stress and mental health issues during pregnancy can affect your developing baby. As March of Dimes points out, stress can spike your blood pressure, which can lead to premature delivery. Stress can also lead to delivering a baby with a lower than optimal birth weight. Low birth weight and premature delivery can put your baby at risk for adverse health outcomes and developmental delays.
In addition to the physical/health aspects, elevated levels of stress can release high levels of cortisol into your bloodstream, which can have lasting impacts on your baby. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) says that experiencing mental health issues like depression during pregnancy may make your baby more prone to crying and that this crying may be more difficult to soothe.
CNN notes that “toxic” levels of stress, depression, and anxiety can cause social, emotional, and behavioral issues down the road. “Clinical studies have found neurobehavioral deficits, such as impaired motor coordination, higher emotional reactivity and language delays in children born to stressed mothers,” CNN explains.
Not All Pregnancy Stress Is The Same
Okay, so this all sounds bad and worrisome. Cue the mom guilt for all those times we felt depressed and anxious during pregnancy. But here’s the thing: for this stuff to significantly affect your baby, it has to be a whole lotta stress for a whole lotta time.
As Ashley Abramson, writing for Elemental, points out, “[l]ong-term, or chronic, exposure to trauma is the kind of stress most doctors worry about when it comes to maternal-fetal health.” In other words, having a few days or even a week or two of being depressed or anxious isn’t going to have that big an impact on your baby.
It also depends on the intensity of the stress.
“The impact of stress on the baby will be determined by the severity of the variation and context of the stress exposure,” Dr. Nikki Zite, OB-GYN with the University of Tennessee Medical Center, tells Abramson in an interview for Elemental. “For example, if a woman experiences repetitive trauma through domestic violence, her baby is probably more at risk than if she is in a minor car accident.”
What To Do If You Experienced Toxic Stress During Pregnancy
Of course, there are many of us who did experience this type of long-term, toxic stress during pregnancy. If that’s you, and you are wracked with guilt about what types of impacts your pregnancy stress might have had on your baby, I want you to know that experiencing life circumstances that trigger that kind of stress is not your fault. The same goes with being a person who experiences mental illness.
You are a good mom, whatever life threw you during your pregnancy.
I think it’s also important to remember that there are powerful things you can do to mitigate the effects that your stressful pregnancy might have had on your baby. If your baby is extra fussy, stressed, and more prone to crying than other babies, things like spending time skin-to-skin with your baby, and holding them as much as possible can have wonderful effects.
Research has shown that holding your baby and doing skin-to-skin time has been shown to slow down their heartbeat, help them regulate their temperature, and decrease crying. Whether it’s stress during pregnancy, or a difficult/traumatic birth, spending time skin to skin can be incredibly healing for both moms and babies.
Finally, if you are someone who is currently experiencing high levels of stress during pregnancy, please talk to your doctor about what steps can be taken to lessen this. Some parents do benefit from taking medication for depression or anxiety during pregnancy, and many doctors will prescribe them if they feels that the risks of ongoing stress during pregnancy is more dangerous to the mom/baby than taking medication.
Keeping It All In Perspective
Both of my babies cried and fussed incessantly every evening for weeks after they were born. Each of my kids had significant asthma issues for their first few years of life. They are both generally healthy kids, and I’m lucky in that department, but as little health things have cropped up over the years, I’ve definitely wondered if the stress I experienced during pregnancy (and at other times when they were little) might have impacted them.
The truth is, though, I’ve learned over the years that if you analyze each and every move you’ve made as a parent, you are definitely going to end up feeling like you’ve abysmally screwed up your kids in some way. Pregnancy is just the beginning of that, unfortunately.
I think all parents can do is try to make good choices, learn from our mistakes—and most of all, remember that kids don’t need perfect parents, but they need loving parents who show up and try their best.
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