Stress during pregnancy isn’t just lousy for you – there’s quite a bit of evidence that it impacts your baby too. And the effects go as deep as the microbes living in your baby’s gut.
This means that your emotions (and how you manage them) have a downstream effect on your body. And for better or worse, this shows up in your baby too. The mind-body connection is a real thing, yo.
So we’re clear, stress doesn’t always mean an extreme life event. It also includes everyday feelings like depression and anxiety.
This is worth mentioning because many women (myself included) have gone through extended periods of depression or anxiety without ever really addressing it. Either you’re too busy, you don’t want to bother anyone, or it’s hard to admit even to yourself just how yucky you feel.
If you’ve been there, I have too. And I get it.
So, how can we help our babies have the best start possible? Let’s take a closer look at what happens when a mama feels ongoing stress.
What prenatal stress does to your baby
This is what science has found: Your baby’s first 1000 days are a time when a lot hardwiring and development takes place. This lays the groundwork for good health or chronic disease in adulthood. Nutrition matters. And mama’s hormones matter too.
Especially stress hormones.
For example, stress during pregnancy may increase the risk for metabolic, cardiovascular, and psychiatric disorders. There’s a greater likelihood for developmental disorders like autism spectrum and ADHD. And some studies even hint at lower levels of Lactobacillus, a group of microbes you’ll find in many probiotics because it fortifies the gut barrier and reduces inflammation.
This very special window of time – and the input baby receives from mama – is sometimes referred to as the fetal programming hypothesis.
So, what’s going on?
At this point, you may wonder how stress hormones could possibly have such broad impact on your baby’s health.
Much of the story around prenatal stress has to do with something called the HPA axis (otherwise known as hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis). It’s a set of glands that manages your response to stress, helping you to adapt to your environment.
Part of the HPA axis is found in your brain. And it sends messages to your adrenal glands to make the stress hormone, cortisol, from cholesterol.
Both animal and human studies have found that mamas who are stressed during pregnancy can sometimes program their babies to have a hyperactive HPA axis.
Meaning, they release extra stress hormones in response to stress.
A hyperactive (and underactive) HPA axis changes how your immune system responds to infection and can turn the dial up on inflammation. This dynamic between stress hormones and immune balance helps to explain how stress during pregnancy can increase the risk of neurodevelopmental disorders and tummy troubles.
Beyond the HPA axis, chronic stress can literally change the terrain of your birth canal.
You see, your vaginal ecosystem harbors a lot of friendly microbes that have a big role to play in your baby’s lifelong wellbeing: if your baby is born vaginally, they coat your baby’s skin and all of her mucus membranes with microbes that eventually help to populate her gut.
But as a group of scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia explains,
The vaginal ecosystem is a dynamic community…sensitive to a variety of factors such as body composition, diet, infection, antibiotic treatment and stress.
With hormones and immune signaling amok, stress can distort the healthy tribes of microbes living in your vaginal canal and ultimately interfere with the time-sensitive inheritance of microbes.
It’s time-sensitive, because it’s when bulk of brain and gut development take place. And chances are good that all the probiotics in the world won’t shift the initial inoculation that takes place at your baby’s birth and during her first two years.
Tools to help you work through stress
Running. Lifting. Kickboxing (with pads and a bag, not another human). Yoga. Whatever it is you do to move you body, keep doing it. And if you haven’t already started – start.*
Because the science on prenatal exercise and baby health is solid. And sure, there’s more to learn and holes of missing information in what we already know. But, still.
This review digs deep into the benefits of exercise during pregnancy. For example:
- Babies born to exercising mamas have been reported to have high Apgar scores.
- Babies and children of mamas who exercise are better able to self-soothe and have higher general intelligence and oral language scores at 5 years old.
- Regular exercise reduces complications linked to pre-eclampsia, like intrauterine growth restriction.
- Low levels of activity during pregnancy is linked to more anxiety, depression and fatigue.
Ultimately, exercise appears to counter all the bad juju of stress. It reduces the risk of heart disease and obesity. It improves sleep, mood, and psychological wellbeing. This includes self esteem as well as anxiety and depression.
* When starting any new exercise while pregnant, be reasonable about your expectations and go slow. Even better, consult with someone who knows how to support your fitness goals during pregnancy.
2. Practice mindfulness, meditation, or yoga
Fortunately, meditation and similar breathing exercises are gaining credibility in the world of science and more folks are looking at the impact these practices have on health. A little science behind a tradition that is thousands of years old helps it become the norm – rather than the alternative when all else has failed.
While there’s still much to discover, here’s what we know so far: Mindfulness can reduce perceived stress, anxiety, and depression in pregnant mamas.
Likewise, other research has found that a mindfulness practice in the second trimester may program your baby’s brain to spend less time processing unimportant information (like the slamming of a door) at 9 months old. In contrast, anxiety during the second trimester was linked to greater time spent on unimportant sounds.
And in 2014, the Buddhist Institute of Enlightenment published a potentially biased but still interesting study on how meditation might alleviate prenatal stress. And do you know what they found? Mamas who followed some hardcore mindfulness exercises reported that babies had a better temperament.
And by hardcore, I mean mindfulness while walking and while eating. A body scan. And a breathing practice.
At one point in my life, I meditated at every chance I got. I also tried different styles, including zen meditation. In the end, I found it to be a powerful tool that I still use. And one style isn’t better than another. It’s about what works for you.
If this is your first pregnancy (meaning, your not chasing after other little ones) and you’re not quite sure how to manage stress, I highly recommend beefing up your mindfulness muscles. You don’t have to go hardcore. But like any exercise, it takes work and dedication.
At times when everything feels like a storm around you, it will be something that you can hold on to.
If you’ve ever tried to change the diaper of a squirmy baby, you may have found yourself belting out a few lines of your favorite kid’s song just so that you could get the dirty diaper off and the clean one on.
No? Just me? Well, in any case singing has some serious mojo.
Before and after pregnancy.
According to the Limerick Lullaby Project, learning lullabies while pregnant can reduce stress and strengthen the bond you feel to your baby. It supports postpartum confidence (which, can sometimes take a blow with a new little in your arms). And it helps you communicate with your newborn.
If you already had a stressful pregnancy
If you’re reading this and feeling guilt or fear because you already had a stressful pregnancy, there are a couple things to keep in mind.
The first is that science is not absolute. It shares risks and potentials – not guarantees. So just because you found yourself going through a hard time while pregnant, it doesn’t mean that your baby will grow up with some sort of disadvantage.
What’s more, you can still use this information and do everything you can to support baby’s gut and brain health.
As mentioned above, your own self care helps to support your baby’s wellbeing (and that’s why it’s one of the 4 building blocks in my free email series.) If it’s available to you, you may also want to:
- Give your baby a probiotic
- Teach your child about her own digestion
- Sing songs together
- Massage your little one
- Help her develop a healthy relationship with exercise
- Talk about ways to manage stress, like mindfulness or breathing games
How have you managed stress during pregnancy? Let me know in the comments.