Read what experts say about how stress affects you and your foetus and find out how to take the stress out of your pregnancy.
WORDS RACHEL KWEK
Expecting a baby is a happy but potentially stressful life event. While some women breeze through their pregnancies without as much as an ounce of anxiety, it can be extremely stressful for some. From worrying about whether you are eating right, to whether your baby is growing well to how you are going to care for your baby when he is born, these doubts zap your energy and may make you feel on edge. More studies are showing that stress is bad for expectant women. Learn more about how your stress can affect the life inside you and what you can do to have a stress-free pregnancy.
Stress Response During Pregnancy
When we are stressed, our bodies react by releasing a cocktail of chemicals and go into what is commonly known as the “fight or flight” mode. Adrenaline and noradrenaline, two chemicals that are largely responsible for this response, cause your heart rate to increase, your breathing to quicken and give you a burst of energy to confront or run away from perceived harm. These chemicals also constrict blood vessels and direct oxygen to where it is needed most and could reduce oxygen supply to the foetus. Cortisol is released during times of stress to regulate your body’s responses to it. Constantly elevated cortisol levels can weaken the immune system, increase blood pressure and sugar, decrease libido, promote obesity and more.
Another chemical, corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) is also released as a precursor of cortisol, which is released to moderate the body’s responses to stress. Studies have shown that CRH levels measured between 16 and 20 weeks of pregnancy accurately predicts the gestation period. Mothers with high CRH levels in early pregnancy tend to go into labour prematurely. These findings suggest that managing stress in the early stages of pregnancy reduces the risk of preterm labour. Experts say it is hard to tell which women are more at risk of stress as it boils down to individual lifestyles and ways of coping with stress. However, they speculate that the more anxious a person is, the more susceptible she is to pregnancy stress.
Stress and Your Foetus
Research evidence suggests CRH modulates foetal growth and the timing of birth. As stress signals the placenta to increase CRH production, being stressed increases the likelihood that your baby will be born before he is fully developed. Premature babies are faced with issues like low birth weight and potential developmental delays. Some studies have also shown that babies who experience stress in utero are more likely to develop chronic health problems like high blood pressure as adults.
While genes play a large role in determining how your foetus develops, experts in developmental biology now believe that a foetus adapts physiologically to stimuli in the womb. At each stage of development, the foetus uses cues from its environment to decide how to best construct itself within the parameters of its genes, according to Dr Pathik Wadhwa, assistant professor of behavioural science, obstetrics and gynaecology at University of Kentucky College of Medicine. She adds that when a foetus builds itself permanently to deal with a high-stress environment, it may be at greater risk of stress-related pathologies after birth. Recent studies also suggest that stress in the womb can affect a baby’s temperament and neurobehavioral development. “Who you are and what you’re like when you’re pregnant will affect who that baby is,” says Janet DiPietro, a developmental psychologist at Johns Hopkins University.