Most women wouldn't dream of smoking a pack of cigarettes or drinking a few martinis while pregnant. Public service efforts over the last few decades have reached the masses, educating would-be parents on the dangerous effects of certain lifestyle choices. But how often do people think about the impact of stress during pregnancy?
It's unclear whether unmanaged stress during pregnancy is a minor issue or as potentially harmful as the lifestyle habits we try to discourage during pregnancy, but mounting evidence suggests a closer look is in order.
To reach any valid conclusions about whether or not acute stress can be harmful for a fetus, some researchers have begun to explore the physical effects of significant maternal stress on fetal health. And although not all research indicates a direct cause and effect relationship, some research has noted legitimate connections.
Research conducted by Vivette Glover, a perinatal psychobiologist in England, demonstrated that chronic stress does pose health risks for the proper development of a fetus. The study noted that elevated cortisol - the hormone released when we experience stress - freely crosses the placenta and is able to directly affect a baby.
The continued secretion of cortisol due to ongoing stress or anxiety is associated with inhibited brain function, which can later result in behavioral, emotional and learning issues. In another study published in the Journal of Child Development in 2004, Belgian researchers noted a connection between women who felt high anxiety in early pregnancy and the subsequent development of hyperactivity in their offspring by the age of eight or nine.
Stress can also be harmful during pregnancy because it reduces blood flow to the baby through the uterine arteries. This in turn means that fewer nutrients are able to reach the baby.
Some of the other observed (though not necessarily substantiated) consequences of intense stress during gestation include miscarriages, premature deliveries, preeclampsia, asthma, and allergies.
It's important to keep in mind is that these complications do not relate to reasonable amounts of stress. All pregnant women experience some stress and this is recognized as a normal and natural part of life and is not dangerous. What's being referred to here is the presence of intense and constant stress.
So just what is a pregnant woman to do? To start with, whenever possible, pregnant women should work with their families and employers to balance out their workload in relation to how they feel. This is especially true for women experiencing difficult pregnancies.
Women should also be proactive about managing stress before it becomes an issue. Setting aside downtime or incorporating relaxation activities such as prenatal yoga or meditation into their day (or at the very least, their week) should be essential.
Physically relaxing activities such as prenatal massage or nature walks with loved ones can also be beneficial on many levels. In the past, many women have regarded these practices as luxuries, but we need to change that thinking and recognize these stress reducers as priorities for maintaining healthy pregnancies.
If a pregnant woman is experiencing unusually high levels of stress due to trauma or loss, she should seek out professional help immediately from either her doctor or a trained therapist. She shouldn't try and handle her problems on her own.
When it comes to the subject of infant health, we are increasingly realizing that healthy, happy babies are generally born to healthy, happy mothers. As part of our efforts to shield our future generations from preventable health issues - as both parents and a society - we need to take a more holistic approach and work to protect the physical, mental and emotional health of our mothers.
(Lilian Presti is a Registered Nutritional Consultant and Naturally Savvy's pregnancy and pediatric nutritionist. NaturallySavvy.co is a website that educates people on the benefits of living a natural, organic and green lifestyle. For more information and to sign up for their newsletter, visit www.NaturallySavvy.com).