Side Effects of Stress During Pregnancy

By Published On: September 8th, 2021

We asked an OB/GYN about addressing concerns of stress while expecting. Here's what we learned ...

For many pregnant women, the 40-week journey of having a bun in the oven is a roller coaster of emotional, physical and situational changes that can take a tole on mom’s mental health, and it’s natural for this life event to challenge even the coolest of cucumbers. Having the facts and knowing what signs to look for can help you deal with personal worries while also finding positive solutions to keep you and your growing baby safe. Read on for our expert’s advice on maternal stress and staying healthy during pregnancy.

How Stress Affects Mom and Baby

Stress is highly subjective, making it tricky to define and difficult to measure, but chances are your pregnancy anxiety inducers are a familiar concern. Expectant women commonly worry about finances, childcare, work deadlines, parenting frustrations, child development and fear of labor. Plus, the impacts of pregnancy on everyday life—from missing work because of morning sickness to skipping out on social events as a result of fatigue—unite moms-to-be in a shared sense of fretfulness.

In addition to the physiological stress of a changing body, wrapping your brain around being pregnant and having a baby can prove overwhelming. It’s normal to feel excited about your growing family one minute, and feel short-term severe stress of parenting the next. With countless transformations happening at once, some expectant mothers are hesitant to surrender control of their surroundings. But what does this stress do the expectant set, and how soon is it of concern?

“There is actually more risk to the pregnancy when there is a major life stress in early pregnancy and the first trimester, as major stress can disrupt the natural adaptations required for a pregnancy to develop normally and lead to adverse outcomes,” says Jill Purdie, MD, OB/GYN and medical director at Northside Women’s Specialists in Atlanta, GA.

The exact impact of stress on a pregnancy is tough to pinpoint and has yet to be proven, but most experts agree that sporadic stress doesn’t pose a threat to pregnancy outcomes or the growing baby. However, some studies have found that pregnant patients coping with high levels of stress due to a life-changing, negative experience without sufficient social support are at risk.

“Psychosocial stress during pregnancy can lead to inadequate sleep and poor eating habits in the mother,” explains Purdie. This in turn may lead to increased risks of illness, weakened immune system and possibly an increased risk of preeclampsia, according to some studies. Purdie further notes that this seems to be especially true for women who already have a history of high blood pressure.

When it comes to the developing fetus’s well-being, risk factors include low birth weight and premature birth, both of which can have lasting impacts and lead to long-term issues, such as increased risk of health problems, specifically asthma and allergies, and they may also experience developmental delay or impaired learning.

Stressed-out mamas, take heart. While you can’t always control what you’re going through, you do have the power to handle your stress response and deal with your situation in a way that cares for your prenatal maternal stress and baby’s birth outcomes.

Mindful Management for Moms-to-Be

Every woman experiences and reacts to stress in her own way. Simple lifestyle adjustments can not only help ease physical discomforts common during pregnancy (such as backache), but also clear the mind to cope with any nerve-racking situations that may come your way.

Moms-to-be who eat well, exercise, hydrate and get enough sleep are better equipped to deal with stress. If you’re already exercising, keep it up during pregnancy, as long as the activity is not affected by poor balance or weight gain. Good fitness options include walking, prenatal yoga and swimming.

“[Additional] best practices for stress management include … being involved in support groups or supportive family units, accepting help when offered, practicing mindfulness (journaling, apps, breathing) and talking to your doctor, says Purdie. Several studies show a decrease in adverse outcomes related to stress when the expectant mother discusses her concerns with her provider. … Keep in mind that stress is hard to measure and may be handled differently by each expectant mother. Health care providers should address life stressors with their patients and offer support and resources as needed.”

Some moms find that an emotional release can also improve stressful situations. Whether it’s a good cry or a heart-to-heart with your partner or a loved one, purging whatever is pent up in a constructive way can help. Reducing over-the-top expectations and just taking things day-by-day can also encourage you to live in the moment and enjoy your journey.

Pregnancy is a life-changing experience, and sometimes it can be difficult to silence the uncertainties and process the pressures that come your way. Will an irregular spat with your partner or a bad day at work impact your growing baby? It’s unlikely. But evaluating your own needs and limits and employing smart solutions to tame your troubles will both help you through pregnancy and prepare you for postpartum.