Pregnancy can be a stress trigger in women, as it is a moment of several physiological, psychological and social changes. Due to the intensity of these changes, it’s normal for women to experiment stress in little doses.
What are the symptoms of stress in pregnancy?
Stress implies an intense physiological activation while trying to adapt to significant environmental events (stressors).
Hans Selye, theorising the General Adaptation Syndrome, recognises three different stages of response to a stressor:
- Alarm: we react to stressors through an activation of our sympathetic system, increasing the heart beat, blood pressure, breathing activity, endocrine secretions, perspiration, bodily temperature and muscle tension.
- Resistance: our body is coping to face the stressor and the alarm symptoms disappear.
- Exhaustion: if stressors persist there can be a burn-out of our defences, with symptoms like fatigue, sleep disorders and decrease of immune system. Stress is not pathological per se, as in small doses it helps us to better concentrate and to have a better performance.
Can stress during pregnancy have effects on the baby born?
Some researches highlighted that an intense and prolonged stress could negatively affect pregnancy, possibly leading to a higher risk of pre-term birth and a lower weight of the baby. Specifically, stress could be not directly responsible for those consequences: it could lead indeed the mother to adopt unhealthy behaviours to better cope with it, such as the use of tobacco, alcohol, …
An intense and prolonged stress could possibly have an impact on the foetus motor skills, with a decreased number of movement assessed with ultrasounds. Moreover, other researches found a higher presence of childhood infective diseases, and consequently a higher use of antibiotics, in babies of mothers stressed during pregnancy.
Some scientists observed that baby girls exposed to high levels of cortisol during the first weeks of gestation had a bigger amygdala’s volume. Amygdala is a part of the brain responsible for emotions processing. This could suggest the chance of a higher risk of developing lifespan affective disorders, such as anxiety, depression, or others. The foetus exposure to high levels of cortisol during gestation could then represent a risk factor for later psychological problems.
Last but not least, intense stress/anxiety in new mothers could interfere in bonding and creating a safe attachment with their babies, making it more difficult to respond to the babies’ emotional needs.
Which tools can be used to reduce stress in pregnancy?
After considering the possible consequences of stress, it is very important to recognise when stress becomes too intense and to try to cope with it at our best.
There are several effective tools than can be used to better cope with stress and anxiety, such as relaxation techniques (progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback or slow breathing technique), meditation (yoga, mindfulness) and psychotherapy. Furthermore, do not underestimate the importance of a constant physical exercise, healthy eating and regular sleep-wake cycles.
Is there a link between stress in pregnancy and the baby’s gender?
A research carried out at Oxford University suggests that the mothers’ work and problems “choose” the baby born gender.
They found indeed that women stressed during pregnancy are more likely to conceive baby girls. In their sample indeed, women with high levels of cortisol had 75% of chance of not conceiving a baby boy.
These interesting results have to be considered as preliminary, as the high levels of cortisol could suggest not only the presence of stress but also the possible presence of other aspects or life-styles that could affect the baby’s gender.
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