One of the hardest things about my current pregnancy is all the guilt. Guilt over whether this move I’m making while seven-months pregnant is causing unnecessary stress on the baby. Guilt over whether I’ve taken too much on at once. If all the studies I’ve read are right, pregnancy stress is responsible for everything from low birth weight to a future bad temperament. What’s an overwhelmed pregnant woman to do?
Slate writer Amanda Schaffer researched the effects that stress really has on a growing baby and pregnant woman. The results – it’s not as bad as we once thought. Of course she’s talking about moderate anxiety – not anything clinical or warranting treatment. Still, I love it when an article makes me feel a little better about my circumstances.
The weight of evidence suggests that moderate levels of stress and anxiety do none of the things we fear. They seem not to affect whether women are able to conceive, whether they carry the fetus to term, or whether their kids reach normal developmental milestones. (If anything, some maternal stress during pregnancy seems to make kids mature a little faster.) This doesn’t mean, of course, that women with anxiety shouldn’t seek care and support. But they should do so for their own sakes—not because distress will ruin their shot at motherhood or somehow damage their fetuses.
Schaffer cites a Danish study of 82,000 women that shows that women who experience stress during their pregnancies gave birth an average of two days sooner than those who didn’t. Two days! So much for the preterm labor scare. And what about the idea that we are all damaging our fetuses if we don’t stay in a constant state of Nirvana for nine months?
The most persuasive of these papers suggest that mild to moderate stress during pregnancy doesn’t hamper babies’ maturation—if anything, it may slightly hasten it.In one study, fetuses whose mothers reported higher levels of distress tended to be more active in utero, a positive developmental sign. In another study, newborns of more distressed women conveyed electrical signals more rapidlyalong the nerve from the ear to the brain, also a marker of neural development. And in a study of toddlers, the results were more striking still: Two-year-olds who were exposed in utero to more maternal distress, including depression or anxiety, scored higher on a standard measure of child development.
What? So I’m actually inadvertently breeding some super-baby? Cool.
I’m being light-hearted about this. Obviously I don’t think stress is something we should all strive for to build healthier babies. But the last minute emergency open-heart surgery my mom had to have last week, the out-of-state move I am making away from all the friends I love and the life that I know, the insurance-limbo I’ll be in until I get there – all of these things are unavoidably causing me a lot of stress. It makes me feel good to know that the uncontrollable, stressful circumstances of my pregnant life probably aren’t ruining my baby.