Jennie teaches psychology and has a master's degree in social work.
Stress in Pregnancy
Pregnancy can be a time of worry, even when parents are delighted to be having a baby. A pregnant woman faces huge changes in her body and her very identity. Often, she must make high-stakes decisions, like how to afford new expenses and whether to shift working arrangements.
Some women confront stress that's over and above the norm. Those who are living in poverty, coping with domestic violence or who have a chronic anxiety disorder are at special risk for experiencing extreme tension during pregnancy.
What are Stress Hormones?
Our bodies are always secreting different types of hormones that help us meet the demands of our environment. Cortisol is the principle 'fight-or-flight' hormone; it surges in our bodies when we're in danger. With the presence of cortisol, our hearts beat faster and pump more oxygen into our muscles. We breathe harder and feel hyper alert. This is great when it allows us to run away from an attacker or turn and fight to win.
Usually cortisol does its job and then decreases to regular levels after the crisis has passed. However, in cases of ongoing stress, there can be too much cortisol hanging around in our bodies. This can lead to medical problems, such as sleep disruption, blood sugar imbalances and high blood pressure.
Effects of Cortisol on the Fetus
Interestingly, there is a natural rise in cortisol that happens toward the end of pregnancy. This helps the maturation of an infant's brain and lungs. It also appears to make mothers more attuned to the signals of their babies shortly after birth.
However, it's been found that a rise in cortisol due to stress during pregnancy, especially early on, can lead to preterm birth and other negative effects on babies that last long after birth, such as problems with temperament and deficits in cognitive development. As you might expect, these effects are stronger with higher stress, such as severe anxiety disorders and extremely difficult environments, particularly conflictual relationships with partners or family.
During pregnancy, it's recommended that women do whatever they can to reduce tension and practice good self-care. Supportive relationships, as well as habits like meditation and exercise, can help tremendously.
If you find yourself in an acutely stressful situation while you're pregnant, one that you can't easily address, there is still good news. Studies show that a secure attachment between infant and caregiver - a loving, reliable bond - can totally eliminate any behavioral or cognitive problems caused by elevated cortisol during pregnancy.
To exemplify the effect stress hormones can have, let's compare two situations of pregnant women with too much cortisol in their bodies.
30-year-old Dana is very happy to be pregnant, having tried to conceive her first child for almost a year. In the early weeks of her pregnancy, she experiences fatigue and morning sickness and has to miss a lot of work. Ultimately, she and her husband decide that she will stop working for the time being. While this is a relief of her daily worries, it causes other concerns about money and division of labor in the marriage.
Meanwhile, cortisol has been surging in Dana's body. Most of the time the levels go back down, but for a few weeks, as the couple works out their money and work decisions, the cortisol stays pretty high. This is all happening early in Dana's pregnancy, which is a time when stress hormones have the strongest effect on the developing baby.
Dana's situation stabilizes a few months before her daughter is born, and she and her husband feel prepared to be parents. Dana is able to work part-time and spends many hours every day bonding with her baby. She notices no ill effects from her bout with stress.
Ariel's situation is much more challenging than Dana's. She is 19 years old and has an on-again/off-again relationship with her boyfriend. She must live with her mother during and after her pregnancy while she attends night classes and works full-time. Even though Ariel has the best intentions for her child, she often stays out late with friends, doesn't get enough sleep and argues with her baby's father. She remains at a high level of stress throughout her pregnancy.
Ariel's son is born three weeks early, but healthy. Ariel is excited to be a mother, but she does not have as much time to spend with her baby as she'd like. When she is at work and school, she must leave him with a variety of friends and family members. As her son gets older, she notices that he can be very irritable and has difficulty with attention.
Dana is fortunate that her stress was fleeting, and she can spend a lot of time bonding with her baby. In Ariel's case, her baby seems to have suffered some consequences of the stress hormones her body released during her pregnancy. The more she is able to nurture a loving, secure attachment with her son, or foster that bond between him and another caregiver, the more these effects will diminish.
High stress during pregnancy can cause a rise in cortisol, which is problematic for a developing fetus, especially in the first weeks. It can lead to early birth and deficits in attention and cognitive development in children. No matter the negative effects of stress on the baby, however, these can be fixed after birth. Studies show that a warm, loving bond between infant and caregiver can eliminate these problems.
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