Does stress during pregnancy lead to bad birth outcomes?

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Every pregnant woman worries during her pregnancy. Am I gaining too much weight or too little? Will my baby be OK? Will I be OK? Will I love my baby enough? Will I love my baby too much? Will I be a good mother? Will my partner and I co-parent well? What if there is something wrong with my baby? And if there is something wrong, did I do something to cause it?

Even though I am a psychologist, I actually don’t think that all of my pregnant patients suffer from anxiety or depression. I think there is an extremely wide spectrum of what is considered normal thinking during pregnancy. Some of that thinking may have come from my own pregnancies, when I found myself on many nights, lying awake for hours worrying about things which in the morning didn’t seem too worrisome. I guess if I was doing it, and I consider myself to be a relatively sane person, I should not label my patients with a mental health diagnosis for doing the very same thing.

Read more: Take this quiz and determine your pregnancy stress level 

However, I do have some patients who indeed have higher than normal levels of anxiety and/or depression. And every one of them worries that her psychological state is somehow going to negatively impact her baby.

So, does stress matter? 

So a study which came out yesterday provides some reassuring information. Researchers from the University of Queensland, Australia, and the University of Manchester, the United Kingdom, assessed 285 women from Australia and New Zealand twice during their pregnancies. They then examined the number of adverse birth outcomes in these women. The results should provide relief to any pregnant woman who worries that her worrying will impact her labor and delivery. The level of depression or anxiety during pregnancy was not related to birth outcomes. What were associated with birth outcomes were serious infections, problems with the placenta, preeclampsia, and marijuana use.

Although it provides relief to know that anxiety and depression aren’t related to birth outcomes, that doesn’t mean that you should just suffer during your pregnancy. It is far from pleasant to feel those symptoms. There are lots of ways that you can work to decrease them and I have written here before about ways to feel better. Some ideas to reduce stress during pregnancy include:

1. Exercise: Simply taking a walk can lead to decreases in depression and anxiety. Some research shows it is as effective as medication.
2. Cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT): this is a brief form of therapy where you challenge your automatic thoughts. It is incredibly effective and easy. Ask your health care team for a referral. Or look at a wonderful book, “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns
3. Social support: having people to confide in and share with is so important to your emotional and physical health. Sharing with other pregnant women may be especially effective. Ask your friends for the names of their pregnant friends, or strike up conversations with other pregnant women in the doctor’s waiting room.
4. Time with your partner: sharing your concerns, hopes, and plans for the baby can bring you closer together, but make sure to schedule fun non-baby time as well. Think about the events and activities you enjoyed while dating. Try those now.

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