Can Stress Affect a Pregnant Woman's Baby in the Womb?

Almost all women experience stress at some point during pregnancy. Mood swings and emotional disturbances are a completely normal reaction to the physical, emotional and lifestyle changes associated with pregnancy. While normal levels of stress are unlikely to be detrimental to the health of a pregnancy, excessive stress may be detrimental to the health of an unborn child.

Cortisol Passes to Baby

During times of emotional stress, the human body releases a steroid hormone known as cortisol. Medical scientists link higher cortisol levels to osteoporosis, heart disease, low muscle tone, depression and obesity, according to Pregnant women experiencing stress may pass excess cortisol to their developing babies. A Bristol University study published in 2005 found women experiencing severe anxiety in the third trimester gave birth to babies with higher cortisol levels at birth. These problems persisted: 10 years later, the children of stressed-out moms still had higher cortisol levels than the majority of their peers.

Preterm Birth

Significant stress in pregnancy can cause serious complications. According to the March of Dimes, very high stress levels can increase the risk of preterm labor. Babies born prematurely have much higher rates of both long-term and short-term complications, including respiratory problems, digestive disease, sudden death, learning disabilities and weakened immunity. Preterm labor often carries life-threatening ramifications for the child, so stress reduction in pregnancy is essential for the baby's health.

Low Birthweight

Full-term babies of stressed-out moms may be underweight at birth, according to the March of Dimes. This complication, known as intrauterine growth restriction or IUGR, can cause permanent harm to a baby's health and development. The American Pregnancy Association links IUGR to pneumonia, low blood sugar, neurological disease, blood disorders and delays in motor development. Low-birthweight babies are also at an increased risk of hypoxia, or low oxygen supply, at birth.

Increased Risk of ADHD

Women experiencing stress during pregnancy are more likely to give birth to children with attention decifit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In May 2011, the "Daily Mail" reported that children born to severely stressed mothers were more than twice as likely to be "unruly" at age 5. The children whose mothers experienced divorce or bereavement during pregnancy were substantially more prone to agitation, academic problems, behavioral outbursts, hyperactivity and other symptoms of ADHD.


Stress during pregnancy is often unavoidable. However, by making healthy lifestyle choices, expectant mothers can help to prevent many of the complications associated with stress in pregnancy. Women struggling with pregnancy-related stress should avoid all harmful behaviors, such as eating disorders, smoking and drinking, to prevent the complications associated with stress. The March of Dimes also recommends relaxation techniques such as meditation and exercise to curb the effects of stress. Pregnant women coping with anxiety should contact a counselor or primary health-care provider for help with managing emotional disturbances.

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