Prenatal Stress Affects Babies

We worry about our babies from the minute we discover we are pregnant. I think we intuitively know that babies don't like it when we mothers are under stress. They are steeping in our chemical make up, after all. It only makes sense that if we release stress hormones, the babies will feel the effects. We know that it's important to minimize stress on the job and in the home.
What the study out of the Netherlands suggests is that stress doesn't just have a transient effect; it actually changes the biology of babies.
"...pregnant women with high stress and anxiety levels are at increased risk for spontaneous abortion and preterm labour [sic] and for having a malformed or growth-retarded baby"

(Mulder, Robles, Medina, Huizink, Van den Bergh, Buitilaar, Visser, 2002)

Of course, some of us have been saying that for a long time. In The Biology of Transcendence, Joseph Chilton Pearce explains the biology of how this happens. In Prenatal Parenting, Dr. Fred Wirth discusses how stress impacts the 'fetal brain architecture'. And of course in HypnoBirthing, we teach methods for optimizing fetal brain growth and bonding through relaxation techniques that bring a peaceful calm to mom and baby throughout each day of the pregnancy and every moment of the birth.

What seems to escape most people is that perhaps the biggest contributor to the stress in most women's pregnancies is the prenatal care they receive! The entire system is build upon the premise that 'something' could go wrong at any moment and we must look for problems at every visit, using every test we can invent, regardless of whether we can do anything about the problems, whether the problems actually exist or not, and even if the tests themselves cause problems.

In Expecting Trouble: What expectant parents should know about prenatal care in America, Dr. Thomas Strong closely examines the safety and efficacy of prenatal care as we know it. Ultimately, his findings are the same as those in A Guide to Effective Care in Pregnancy and Childbirth available free online through Childbirth Connection. Most prenatal tests (not to mention birthing interventions) are not supported by evidence and often to nothing but increase the amount of ANXIETY mothers feel. Yes, you read that right: all of these routinely administered tests have done NOTHING to make mothers or babies safer in the US. Far from it. In the years I've been studying childbirth (over 15) more and more tests have been introduced; more and more interventions are now standard in 'normal' birth. Maternal mortality has remained essentially the same. Infant mortality has worsened. For some sobering statistics, see Born in the USA: How a broken maternity system must be fixed to put women and children first, by Dr. Marsden Wagner.

A few years ago, I asked mothers of twins to tell me their stories. I received about 50 responses. I wanted to see if there was a difference in twin pregnancies managed by midwives and doctors. There was: in the pregnancies managed by doctors, with the mantra of 'twins always come early and are always small', twins came early (often because if they didn't come by 36 weeks the doctors would induce or surgically remove the babies-talk about a Pygmalion Effect!) and were small. In the midwife attended twins, often the twins went to 39, 40 or even 41 weeks and weighed 6, 7 or even 8 lb.

One woman's doctor performed dozens of ultrasounds, despite the fact that ultrasounds have been implicated in early miscarriage and low birth weight! Now, granted, a twin pregnancy is just cause for a couple of ultrasounds. It's important to determine if the babies are monoamniotic, and it's also important to know their position at the time of birth. But what exactly did 2 or 3 a month tell her doctor? How did it change her care? One thing it did for certain was reinforce the idea that 'something' could go wrong at an minute, inducing STRESS and nearly ensuring a pre-term birth; a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Every test and intervention has its place. There are medical indications that precipitated the introduction of each one. For mother-babies who are sick or injured in such a way that those medical indications manifest, those tests and interventions are appropriate. For the other 90%, they are at best worthless, and at worst dangerous.

How much stress could be avoid, how much healthier would our mother-babies be, if we taught women how to be healthy in pregnancy instead of convincing them they were sick?

Mulder EJ, Robles de Medina PG, Huizink AC, Van den Bergh BR,
Buitelaar JK, Visser GH., (2002).Prenatal maternal stress: effects on pregnancy and the (unborn) child.Department of Perinatology and Gynaecology, University Medical
Centre, Utrecht, The Netherlands.

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