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stress in pregnancy – effects on mother and baby
Pregnancy is a time of tremendous change for women, both physically and emotionally. Extended periods of stress and anxiety during pregnancy lead to a surge in stress hormones that can ultimately be harmful to you and your unborn child.
When stress hormone levels rise, it can be difficult to conceive and there is an increased risk of pre-eclampsia and miscarriage. Babies are more likely to be born prematurely and with a low birth weight. They are also more likely to experience developmental delays and metabolic diseases later in life. This happens because during pregnancy, stress hormones (such as Cortisol) are transferred in a linear way between you and your baby, so a relatively low increase for you is equivalent to relatively high increase for your developing baby.
Stress during pregnancy may result in lasting effects on the infant’s health status, the development and function of the infant’s immune system; and the cognitive development of the infant.
Source: Project Ice Storm – Continuing Effects of Prenatal Stress on Children's Physical, Cognitive and Behavioural Development in Adolescence. Suzanne King, PhD
I’ve been working with pregnant woman for some time now and there seems to be a many factors contributing to anxiety and stress during pregnancy.
In early stages of pregnancy, women are understandably anxious about the safety of their unborn child. Very often, when you’re not yet showing it’s difficult to explain to others why you might be feeling tired or unwell. It’s quite common for women to be reluctant to accept the pregnancy because of a fear of attachment (and possible loss) of the unborn child. This is particularly likely if there has been fertility treatment or prior experience of miscarriage. Up to the 20-week scan, many women often only share news of their pregnancy with a handful of others. These factors can lead to unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety, especially if you are receiving little support and already feel out of balance, both physically and emotionally.
Once the pregnancy is established, routine checks can be a source of worry, leaving many women feeling anxious about how they should be feeling or what their baby’s progress should be at any given time. Medical appointments are relatively brief and women can leave feeling uninformed and unsupported. If the mother is working then maternity leave comes at a time when women begin to think more about birth and their ability to mother a newborn child. There are often societal expectations around birth and parenting and if a woman is feeling vulnerable she may well struggle to find her way amongst the seemingly endless streams of advice from friends, family, books, blogs and the media.
It is easy to become overwhelmed as the body tires, hormones fluctuate and birth becomes an ever-present reality. It’s really common to become anxious about the process of birth itself and this can be amplified if you are lacking in support, experiencing complications or go pass your due date and are likely to be induced. Often a last-minute change in the birth plan can be hugely stressful for both you and your birth partner.
The strongest effects on infant development and behaviour were found for pregnancy-specific anxieties, such as fear of health and integrity of the unborn baby and fear of (pain during) delivery.
Source: Huizink AC. Prenatal stress and its effects on infant development. Academic Thesis, University Utrecht, The Netherlands; 2000. p. 1– 217
Throughout pregnancy many women continue to work whilst juggling relationships and family responsibilities with looking after themselves and the developing baby. This is hugely challenging and often it’s difficult for the woman to find the time and space to feel connected to her body and her baby. With so much going on it’s only natural that you might feel anxious, but there are some really simple things you can do to help minimise stress:
• Live as simply as you can – prioritise eating well, relaxation and getting lots of sleep. Your body is working overtime to nourish your growing baby so you need all the rest you can get.
• Keep moving – gentle exercise such as walking and swimming can help with relaxation and can also help with the physical changes you’ll be experiencing.
• Try breathing exercises and/or pregnancy yoga – regular classes are a great way of prioritising your needs and having the support of other women during pregnancy can make a big difference to how you’re feeling.
• Practice saying ‘no’ – probably the most important and the hardest thing to do! Drop the idea that you can be ‘super-mum’ and focus your time and attention on yourself.
• Do less and ask for more help – remember how good it feels to help others…don’t deny those around you this precious opportunity!
Pregnancy massage can also help promote relaxation. Regular sessions can reduce the effects of stress as well as offering you a space where you can relax and connect to your body and your developing baby. Our approach supports the medical care you’ll receive through your GP, midwife and obstetrician, bridging the gap between mind and body in a way that is truly holistic and complementary by nature.
Please see our pregnancy massage in Bristol page for further information.