It’s Not Just for You, But For Your Baby’s Health Too
As high-risk pregnancy specialists, we monitor and control risks that are often beyond a woman’s control. However, there is one risk that is associated with premature birth or having a low birth-weight baby that can be managed by the mom herself: stress.
Before you start stressing over the association between stress and pregnancy risks, consider the things you can do to help you relax and give yourself the best chance for a healthy pregnancy and delivery.
1. Understand how stress causes pregnancy risks.
Every pregnant woman worries a little. It’s human nature, especially when there is so much on the line. Usual small stressors should be no cause for concern. However, factors such as a death or illness in the family, a move, stress on the job, the loss of a job, separation or divorce, a physical fight or having an overly anxious and/or fearful personality put you at greater risk.
When you’re in a stressful situation or can’t manage your fears, your body releases the stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine. These hormones have been associated with low birth weight and preterm labor because they constrict blood vessels and can temporarily reduce blood flow and oxygen to the uterus.
Medical research also suggests that severe stress and anxiety can cause the placenta to produce increased levels of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which regulates the duration of the pregnancy and fetal maturation. Stress appears to play a role during several key times in a pregnancy. During the first trimester, stress is associated with an increased risk of miscarriage. Earlier exposure to severe stress is also associated with an increased risk of motor disorders. From 19 to 26 weeks, the developing fetal brain goes through a key wiring during development and changes during this time are associated with an increased risk for the fetus in adult life of schizophrenia, depression, autism, and learning disability.
2. Get the best prenatal care you can.
If you are concerned that you may have a high-risk pregnancy, talk to your provider about your worries. If warranted, he or she may recommend more advanced testing with a maternal-fetal medicine specialist, who can in turn talk to you about whether you need more specialized care.
3. Reduce your workload.
Pregnancy is not the time to prove you’re super-woman. If you’re in a high-stress job, talk to your boss about cutting back or changing your job requirements while you’re pregnant. If the physical activity of work is excessive for your pregnancy ask your physician for a note for possible work modification. If your employer can’t make concessions and you need your job to survive, it’s even more important that you consider the stress-reduction techniques below.
If you work, make sure you put your feet up and relax during your lunch hour or coffee break. At home, give yourself permission to do fewer household chores or ask your partner and other family members for help. And get plenty of sleep. Your body will need more than usual since it’s nourishing both you and the baby.
5. Take a prenatal yoga class.
Yoga provides a great way to relax, stretch and tone your muscles and improve your balance and breathing. It teaches you how to avoid tightening your body when you’re tense and often includes visualization techniques. With practice, you can use yoga to reduce your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. A yoga class is also a great way to meet other pregnant women, who can identify with your normal concerns and provide support.
Studies on the use of yoga during pregnancy have shown dramatic effects in the reduction of cortisol levels by as much as 50%. Yoga has also been associated with a reduced risk of babies with growth restriction, reduced preterm birth, and a reduced risk of preeclampsia.
In addition to yoga, consider adding meditation to your daily routine. There are different forms of meditation, from concentrating your mind on one thing, to positive visualization to focusing only on your breath. Talk to your doctor about meditation classes in your area.
Exercise produces endorphins. Endorphins are brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters that fight stress naturally. If you have no known risks, you should be able to continue with your normal routine, with modifications as you get into your third trimester. Walking and swimming are low impact exercises that you should be able to enjoy throughout your pregnancy. If you’re new to regular exercise, start off slowly, with 20 minutes a day of a low impact activity. If you have any doubts about what exercises are safe, talk to your doctor. Wear a heart monitor and keep your pulse at 140 or less. Consider resistance training such as Pilates or a lightweight routine. Start these under proper supervision.
7. Get yourself the support you need.
If you’re a highly anxious person or prone to panic attacks or feel overwhelmed by the stress you are feeling, seek the help of a licensed therapist or join a support group to learn behavioral modification strategies to cope with your anxiety. If you’ve put off getting this kind of help before, consider that now you’re not just doing it for yourself but for your baby as well.