Can Stress Affect the Fetus?
Some stress during pregnancy is normal, just as it is during other times of life. But if stress becomes constant, the effects on a mother and her unborn baby could be lasting.
When you’re stressed, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode, sending out a burst of cortisol and other stress hormones. If you can quickly reduce your stress and move on once the source of the stress reaction has passed, your stress response will recede, and your body will go back into balance. But the kind of stress that is really damaging is the kind that doesn’t let up. Sadly, most people struggling with chronic, unrelieved stress do not recognize what is happening to them. This is the stress that comes from within – from chronic high levels of anxiety and fear, the type that keeps one awake at night.
In fact, constant stress alters your body’s stress management system, causing it to overreact and trigger an inflammatory response. For most of us, this may ultimately lead to chronic inflammatory-based disease. But, in a pregnant woman, the consequences of chronic and unrelieved stress are much more immediate and permanent. This was the main message of my book, Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms: How Breaking Free From Stress Can Boost Your Baby’s Potential.
Inflammation during a pregnancy has been linked to poorer pregnancy health, too early delivery, and subsequent developmental problems in the babies as they mature. There is data that links that higher chronic stress during pregnancy, particularly in women with poor coping skills, with lower birth weight and premature delivery. The bad news does not stop there. Often such moms have babies that are fussy, hard to comfort once they are upset and crying, and some infants even fail to thrive.
A primary reason that stress reduction during pregnancy was the key point of my book was to call attention to the dangers of chronic stress on the fetal brain and the ensuing behavioral and emotional problems of childhood that last into adulthood. The fetal brain responds to maternal chronic stress by making subtle changes in the development of the brain. These subtle changes lead to behavioral issues as the baby grows, such as ADD/ADHD, high levels of anxiety, learning differences, and even autism.
Research in this area may still be considered early; however, it has been quietly stacking up in the background. Why is it still not a major message the OB/GYN talks about to the young pregnant woman? This is an important way we can help the children of tomorrow. Psychologists and other mental health providers can contribute to the reduction of behavioral issues in children by spreading the word and teaching good coping strategies, particularly to young women.