Stress during Pregnancy
- A growing literature suggests that pregnant women may be susceptible to various forms of stress, such as state anxiety, pregnancy anxiety, and perceived stress. While all the three may have some impact on prenatal development, it is argued that pregnancy anxiety has the most considerable effect on the gestational age- the duration of gestation at birth (Schetter, 2011). Most notably, scientific research shows that when a pregnant woman experiences a high level of anxiety about their pregnancy, such as concern about the baby and the delivery process, they are likely to give birth before the full gestational length of 37 to 40 weeks.
Stressors during pregnancy
- It is worth noting that apart from the personal anxiety that pregnant women may experience, external factors can also cause stress, and they may have detrimental effects on gestational age or lead to preterm birth.
- One of the most significant stressors during pregnancy is life-threatening events such as the death of loved ones or disasters such as fire and terrorist attacks (Schetter, 2011). The highlighted events are often unanticipated; thus, when they occur, they may create anxiety, fright, and a state of panic in a pregnant woman.
- Stress may also arise from chronic strain, such as involvement in activities that are physically strenuous to the pregnant woman, poverty, and exposure to environments that are subject to crimes.
Impact of Stress on Prenatal Development
- So far, research has established a correlation between stress and its adversities on prenatal development. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that short term stress may not have a significant impact on fetal development, as it is often short-lived. The form of stress that is likely to affect prenatal development is one that is prolonged or when it frequently occurs (Byers, 2012). However, pregnant women should ensure that they remain free of stress, regardless of its intensity, to avoid affecting the baby’s growth.
Low Birth Weight
- Stress during pregnancy is unhealthy, and it can lead to multiple adversities, such as delivering a child that has a low birth weight (Byers, 2012). Typically, the average weight of a baby ranges between 2.5kg and 4.5kg. This weight is fully attained when the developing zygote, embryo, and fetus gets the necessary nutrients from the mother’s blood. However, when the pregnant mother does not provide such nutrition due to indulgence in unhealthy eating habits and substance abuse, after exposure to stressors, the child’s development is inhibited, and this results in the birth of low birth weight babies.
- Research also proves that stress can lead to the delivery of premature babies. Most notably, a study conducted by Tegethoff et al. and Yonkers et al. revealed that pregnant women with a history of intense anxiety and stress reported giving birth earlier than usual (cited by Kail & Cavanaugh, 2013).
- Scholars hypothesize that preterm birth is caused by different mechanisms in the woman’s body that initiate early labor, especially when the latter is exposed to prolonged stress and anxiety. One of the mechanisms that cause premature birth is early activation of the mother’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (Schetter, 2011). Most notably, the HPA is a system in the body that responds to stress, and it is often associated with inducing labor. Thus, when a pregnant woman experiences prolonged stress, the HPA is activated, and it triggers labor before the gestation age.
- The second mechanism of premature birth is associated with the release of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). When a pregnant woman experiences stress, the CRH is released from the placenta (Schetter, 2011). The release of CRH results from the activation of the HPA, which leads to the binding of corticotropin-releasing-factor (CRF) and CRF receptors. Like the HPA axis, the release of CRH is also associated with an onset of labor (Schetter, 2011). Thus, when the hormone is released before the gestational age, the baby may be born prematurely.
- Furthermore, a growing literature suggests that stress, inflammation, and premature labor are highly correlated. As hypothesized by Cohen and Herbert, stress contributes to inflammation of cytokines and C-reactive protein (cited by Schetter, 2011). This inflammation may trigger the contraction of the uterine wall, thus leading to premature labor. Nonetheless, the interconnection between the three factors is still an ongoing research area.
Chronic Health Problems
- Evidence from prior research also suggests that stress during pregnancy can create a tendency of stress to the born child and eventually lead to the development of chronic health problems such as heart disease (Byers, 2012). Such issues may be caused by the direct transmission of the impact of stress from the mother to the baby before birth. As the literature suggests, the mother’s heart rate and blood pressure are transmitted to the baby through the placenta in the event of prolonged anxiety and stress (Byers, 2012). Therefore, when the mother’s blood pressure and heart rate rise as a result of tension, this impact is directly transmitted to the developing baby through the placenta. Consequently, the baby’s heart rate also increases. The fact that the baby is in a constant stage of learning reflexes at 26 weeks implies that frequent and early exposure to the impact of stress from the mother may create a tendency of stress and eventually lead to chronic disease when the baby is born.
Harm to a child’s Mental Development
- Literature also suggests that stress during pregnancy can affect a baby’s mental development after birth (Byers, 2012). One of the possible explanations for this is constrained oxygen supply to the fetus during growth. Oxygen is a crucial component of the fetus’s growth, apart from nutrition, and it plays a critical part in the development of the child’s nervous system. When the mother is exposed to prolonged anxiety and stress, adequate oxygen may not be transferred through the placenta. As a result, the fetus’ brain development may significantly be affected, resulting in mental health issues when the child is eventually born.
Note: Stress is harmful during prenatal development. It may affect not only the development of the unborn child but also jeopardize their well-being after birth. Furthermore, stress can also affect the mother’s well-being and create complications during delivery. As such, pregnant women must avoid or learn to cope with stress and anxiety at all times.
Coping with Stress During Pregnancy
- Sometimes, some forms of stress may be unavoidable, mainly when they are caused by external factors such as poverty. As such, women can only learn how to cope with stress in such instances and attain an optimum level of relaxation required for the healthy growth of the baby.
- Prior studies conducted among women during pregnancy suggest that one can cope with anxiety by interacting with others in the same situation and venting emotions to prevent a build-up of tension that is harmful to fetal development.
Kail, R.V., & Cavanaugh, J.C. (2013). Essentials of human development: A life-span view. Boston, Massachusetts: Cengage Learning.
Schetter, C.D. (2011). Psychological science on pregnancy: Stress processes, biopsychosocial models, and emerging research issues. Annual Review of Psychology, 62, 531-558. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.031809.130727
Byers, J. (2012, June 4). National geographic- In the Womb 1-10 [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNrcvTijbyM&list=PLOysBAoG5yME6wBofYXsC9vc2XdVnv7nk