With so much focus on body care and post-delivery parenting, the effect of maternal stress on an unborn baby is still a topic in need of more research and attention.
But one consensus most doctors and researchers come to is that maternal stress creates a risky environment for the unborn child.
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Stressors that Threaten Fetal Development
Stress is a normal part of life. And the source of stress can vary greatly. Typical life stressors include juggling relationships, employment responsibilities, and daily living activities. There are also life altering stressors, like grief, the aftereffects of divorce, and relocation.
In general, stress affects the body regardless of severity. But chronic stress is especially harmful to the body. For pregnant women, chronic stress is not only harmful to their bodies, it's harmful to their unborn children as well.
The Intrauterine Environment
In one research review conducted through Columbia University Medical Center on maternal stress, it was confirmed that the prenatal period is a vulnerable time for an unborn baby.
During this time, the fetus is at an increased risk for neurodevelopmental disorders and poor emotional adjustment. Women who’d been exposed to various stressors – traumatic, common life, or chronic – caused challenges to prenatal development. Children exposed to these stressors were later found to have a reduced cognitive ability, mood disorders, and autism.
Long-Term Effects of Stress Hormones
Prenatal exposure to maternal stress can have long-term effects. For instance, the stress hormone, cortisol, is transferred from mother to fetus through the placenta. Researchers from Denver University found that unborn children exposed to higher cortisol levels were more sensitive to stress as infants. And as toddlers, they were more anxious than their peers.
When these same children were tested between the ages of 6 and 9, they were found to have larger amygdalas in comparison to children their age that hadn’t been exposed to stress while in the womb.
Reducing Prenatal Stressors
Always speak to your obstetrician about any challenges you might be facing during your pregnancy so that your baby is being monitored closely. Your obstetrician might suggest you meet with a mental health professional if you're experiencing severe stress that can potentially affect you and your unborn child.
Your doctor might also suggest self-care tips. In such cases, you'd be asked to engage in activities that you enjoy - walking, swimming, meeting with friends, or developing hobby interests. The American Psychological Society also suggests meditation and releasing tension through smiles and laughter.
You know yourself best; do what will help lower your stress levels.
Always remember that if you're in an abusive situation, both you and your baby will benefit from you seeking help.
- Impact of Maternal Stress, Depression & Anxiety on Fetal Neurobehavioral Development
- The Timing of Prenatal Exposure to Maternal Cortisol and Psychosocial Stress is Associated with Human Infant Cognitive Development
- Denver University Research Study
- Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science, Volume 3