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What Can Stress Do to the Unborn Baby?

author image Amanda Hermes
Amanda Hermes has been a freelance writer since 2009. She writes about children's health, green living and healthy eating for various websites. She has also been published on EdutainingKids.com, Parents Tips Blog and Weekly Woof Blog and she has worked as a ghostwriter for parenting articles. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of North Texas.
What Can Stress Do to the Unborn Baby?
High stress levels during pregnancy can lead to health problems for the baby. Photo Credit Pregnant women belly image by Anatoly Tiplyashin from <a href='http://www.fotolia.com'>Fotolia.com</a>

Pregnancy can be one of the most amazing times in a woman's life--but also one of the most stressful, with physical and hormonal changes, worries about her baby and fears about how her life will change. Women with difficult work environments, home lives or health problems may find themselves under increased stress while pregnant, which can pose serious threats to the baby.

Preterm Birth

According to the March of Dimes, very high levels of stress during pregnancy can lead to preterm labor, meaning labor that occurs before the 37th week of pregnancy. Stress causes release of the hormone CRH, which triggers uterine contractions. Since most babies' lungs don't develop fully until 36 weeks, babies who are born preterm are at increased risk of needing prolonged hospitalization, having long-term health problems or dying.

Low Birth Weight

The March of Dimes also reports that mothers under a lot of stress have a higher risk of delivering a low-birth-weight baby. Stress often contributes to high blood pressure, which can keep the mother's uterus from growing at a normal rate, thereby causing the baby's growth to be restricted. Babies with low birth weight, meaning less than 5 lb., 8 oz., often have serious medical problems, such as respiratory distress syndrome, bleeding in the brain, heart defects, intestinal problems and vision loss.

Stress and Sex of Baby

According to a 2010 study reported on ScienceDaily, male and female babies respond differently to stress during pregnancy. Male babies usually continue normal growth patterns when the mother is stressed, but females slow their growth at the first sign of stress. When mom is under repeated stress, however, boys are at a greater risk of preterm delivery, or they might stop growing altogether. When a pregnant woman is under high stress, her body produces more of the hormone cortisol, which causes changes to the placenta, leading to restricted fetal growth.

Types of Stress that Affect Pregnancy

Routine stresses, such as deadlines and traffic jams, probably don't contribute to pregnancy complications, according to the March of Dimes, but certain types of severe or long-lasting stress can. Negative life events, such as divorce, death in the family, serious illness or job loss, or catastrophic events, like disasters or war, can cause severe stress. Other factors, such as depression, panic disorders, drug use, domestic violence or serious medical conditions, can also result in acute stress. Women with chronic stress are also at risk for adverse pregnancy outcomes.


The first step to preventing stress is identifying its causes and developing ways to deal with them. Some women might need to cut back on activities during pregnancy to give herself more down time. A healthy diet can help to reduce physical stress and exercise can relieve anxiety. Stress-reduction techniques, like yoga, meditation, and aromatherapy, can also be helpful.

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