Everyone responds differently to stress, of course. A stressor that leaves one person with a palpitating heart and trembling fingers might be met by another with ease. But stress, especially chronic stress, is not an equal-opportunity specter. Particularly stress during pregnancy amongst woman and the development of a baby’s brain.
CAN STRESS AFFECT BABIES BRAIN DEVELOPMENT?
A research team led by the University of Edinburgh showed that levels of cortisol are linked to the development of the baby’s amygdala, an area of the brain known to be involved in emotional and social development in childhood. For the study, scientists took hair samples from seventy-eight pregnant women to determine the levels of cortisol in the previous three months. The women’s babies underwent a series of brain scans using an MRI, a non-invasive scan that took place while they slept.
The researchers found that higher levels of cortisol in the mother’s hair were linked to structural changes in the infants’ amygdala as well as differences in brain connections. Doctors say this could explain why children whose mothers experienced high levels of stress during pregnancy may be more likely to have emotional issues in later life.
WHAT EXACTLY DOES CORTISOL DO IN THE BODY?
Think of cortisol as nature’s built-in alarm system. It’s your body’s main stress hormone that works with certain parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation, and fear. Your adrenal glands—triangular shaped organs at the top of your kidneys—make cortisol. It’s best known for helping fuel your body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ instinct in a crisis, but also plays an important role in a number of other things.
HOW DOES STRESS AFFECT PREGNANCY AND BABY?
Many independent studies show that if a mother is depressed, anxious, and experiencing stress during pregnany, her child is at increased risk for having a range of problems, including:
- ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
- Conduct disorder
- Emotional problems
- Impaired cognitive development
TYPES OF STRESS THAT CAN CAUSE PROBLEMS DURING PREGNANCY
Serious types of stress during pregnancy may increase your chances of certain problems, like premature birth. Most women who have serious stress during pregnancy can have healthy babies. But talk to your health care provider if you have these types of stress:
- Negative life events:These are things like divorce, serious illness, death in the family, or losing a job.
- Catastrophic events:These can include an array of natural disasters.
- Long-lasting stress:This type of stress can be caused by having problems with money, being abused, being homeless or having serious health problems.
- Depression or anxiety:Depression is a medical condition that causes feelings of sadness and a loss of interest in things you like to do. It can affect how you feel, think and act and can interfere with your daily life. Anxiety is a feeling of worry or fear of things that may happen. If you have these conditions before pregnancy, talk to your provider before stopping or starting any medications.
- Neighborhood stress:Some women may have stress from living in a neighborhood with poverty and crime.
- Racism: Some women may face stress from racism and discrimination during their lives. This may help explain why African-American women in the United States are more likely to have premature and low-birthweight babies than women from other racial or ethnic groups.
- Pregnancy-related stress:Some women may feel serious stress about pregnancy. They may be worried about pregnancy loss, the health of their baby. Not to mention how they’ll cope with labor and birth or becoming a parent. If you feel this way, talk to your health care provider.
CHRONIC STRESS ON INFANT AND CHILD DEVELOPMENT
Stress that is chronic can also lead to low birth weight, as well as later physical and psychological problems. Babies whose mothers experiences these kinds of stress during pregnancy are more likely to have respiratory and digestive problems, irritability, or sleep problems in the first three years of life. They are also more apt to experience developmental problems with cognitive, behavioral, social-emotional, and health issues. This suggests that neurodevelopmental changes can ripple into adolescence and adulthood.
REDUCING STRESS DURING PREGNANCY
Every person has unique vulnerabilities and strengths, and every situation is different. Although we might not be able to control what happens to us, we have some control over how we react. We can change our responses to stress through self-care (nutrition, sleep, and moderate physical activity), increasing our repertoire of emotion strategies for coping, and seeking support from others. A strong support network of a partner, family, and friends can buffer the ill effects of stress. Techniques like meditation and mindfulness have been shown to reduce stress and create better pregnancy outcomes and physical health.
You’re not alone if you feel stressed during pregnancy — it’s perfectly normal. Those everyday stressors experienced by pregnant women don’t typically impact mom or baby’s health. It’s chronic stress that you need to watch out for. It not only affects your own health — pregnant or not — but may complicate labor and baby’s development. The good news is that there are many ways you can keep stress at bay. Take a little extra time for self-care without guilt. Knowing your options for stress relief and incorporating them in your life can help make these days a bit smoother and keep you and your baby healthier.