Stress and pregnancy

KEY POINTS

  • Stress is a common feeling during pregnancy. Physical discomforts and other changes in your daily life can cause stress during pregnancy.

  • Some types of stress may cause serious health problems, like high blood pressure, and lead to problems like premature birth.

  • Learn about ways to help manage some stresses in your life like talking to your health care provider and asking your partner, friends or family for help.

How can stress affect your pregnancy?

Feeling stressed is common during pregnancy because pregnancy is a time of many changes. Your family life, your body and your emotions are changing. You may welcome these changes, but they can add new stresses to your life.

High levels of stress that continue for a long time may cause health problems, like high blood pressure and heart disease. During pregnancy, stress can increase the chances of having a premature baby (born before 37 weeks of pregnancy) or a low-birthweight baby (weighing less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces). Babies born too soon or too small are at increased risk for health problems.

What causes stress during pregnancy?

The causes of stress are different for every woman, but here are some common causes during pregnancy:

  • You may be dealing with the discomforts of pregnancy, like morning sickness, constipation, being tired or having a backache.
  • Your hormones are changing, which can cause your mood to change. Mood swings can make it harder to handle stress.
  • You may be worried about what to expect during labor and birth or how to take care of your baby.
    If you work, you may have to manage job tasks and prepare your team for when you take maternity leave.
  • You may worry about how you eat, drink and feel and how these things affect your baby.

What types of stress can cause pregnancy problems?

Stress is not all bad. When you handle it right, a little stress can help you take on new challenges. Regular stress during pregnancy, such as work deadlines, probably don’t add to pregnancy problems.

However, serious types of stress during pregnancy may increase your chances of certain problems, like premature birth. Most women who have serious stress during pregnancy can have healthy babies. But talk to your health care provider if you have these types of stress:

  • Negative life events. These are things like divorce, serious illness or death in the family, or losing a job or home.
  • Catastrophic events. These include earthquakes, hurricanes or terrorist attacks.
  • Long-lasting stress. This type of stress can be caused by having problems with money, being abused, being homeless or having serious health problems.
  • Depression or anxiety. Depression is a medical condition that causes feelings of sadness and a loss of interest in things you like to do. It can affect how you feel, think and act and can interfere with your daily life. It needs treatment to get better. Anxiety is a feeling of worry or fear of things that may happen. Both conditions may make it hard to take care of yourself and your baby. Depression and anxiety are common and treatable so talk to your provider if you feel depressed or anxious. If you have these conditions before pregnancy, talk to your provider before stopping or starting any medications. Quitting suddenly can cause serious problems for you and your baby. If you need to stop taking medicine or switch medicines, your health care provider can help you make changes safely.
  • Neighborhood stress. Some women may have stress from living in a neighborhood with poverty and crime.
  • Racism. Some women may face stress from racism during their lives. This may help explain why African-American women in the United States are more likely to have premature and low-birthweight babies than women from other racial or ethnic groups.
  • Pregnancy-related stress. Some women may feel serious stress about pregnancy. They may be worried about pregnancy loss, the health of their baby or about how they’ll cope with labor and birth or becoming a parent. If you feel this way, talk to your health care provider.

How does stress cause pregnancy problems?

We don’t completely understand the effects of stress on pregnancy. But certain stress-related hormones may play a role in causing certain pregnancy complications. Serious or long-lasting stress may affect your immune system, which protects you from infection. This can increase the chances of getting an infection of the uterus. This type of infection can cause premature birth. 

Other ways stress can cause pregnancy problems include:

  • Normal pregnancy discomforts, like trouble sleeping, body aches and morning sickness may feel even worse with stress
  • You may have problems eating, like not eating enough or eating too much. This can make you underweight or cause you to gain too much weight during pregnancy. It also may increase your risk of having gestational diabetes and preterm labor.
  • Stress may lead to high blood pressure during pregnancy. This puts you at risk of a serious high blood pressure condition called preeclampsia, premature birth and having a low-birthweight infant.
  • Stress also may affect how you respond to certain situations. Some women deal with stress by smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol or taking street drugs, which can lead to serious health problems in you and you baby.

Many women worry that stress may lead to miscarriage, the death of a baby before 20 weeks of pregnancy. While extra stress isn't good for your overall health, there's no evidence that stress causes miscarriage.

How can post-traumatic stress disorder affect pregnancy?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (also called PTSD) is a disorder that develops when you have problems after you experience a shocking, scary or dangerous event. These events may include rape, abuse, a natural disaster, a terrorist attack or the death of a loved one. People with PTSD may have:

  • Serious anxiety
  • Flashbacks of the event
  • Nightmares
  • Physical responses (like a racing heartbeat or sweating) when reminded of the event

Women who have PTSD may be more likely than women without it to have a premature or low-birthweight baby. They also are more likely than other women to have risky health behaviors, such as smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, abusing medications or taking street drugs. Doing these things can increase the chances of having pregnancy problems. If you think you may have PTSD, talk to your provider or a mental health professional. Treatments for PTSD include medications and therapy.

Can high levels of stress in pregnancy affect your baby’s health later in life?

Some studies show that high levels of stress in pregnancy may cause certain problems during childhood, like having trouble paying attention or being afraid. It’s possible that stress also may affect your baby’s brain development or immune system.

How can you reduce stress during pregnancy?

Here are some ways to help you reduce stress:

  • Know that the discomforts of pregnancy are only temporary. Ask your provider about how to handle these discomforts.
  • Stay healthy and fit. Eat healthy foods, get plenty of sleep and exercise (with your provider’s OK). Exercise can help reduce stress and also helps prevent common pregnancy discomforts.
  • Cut back on activities you don’t need to do. For example, ask your partner to help with  chores around the house.  
  • Try relaxation activities, like prenatal yoga or meditation. They can help you manage stress and prepare for labor and birth.
  • Take a childbirth education class so you know what to expect during pregnancy and when your baby arrives. Practice the breathing and relaxation methods you learn in your class.
  • If you’re working, plan ahead to help you and your employer get ready for your time away from work. Use any time off you may have to get extra time to relax.

The people around you may help with stress relief too. Here are some ways to reduce stress with the help of others:

  • Have a good support network, which may include your partner, family and friends. Or ask your provider about resources in the community that may be helpful.
  • Figure out what’s making you stressed and talk to your partner, a friend, family or your provider about it.
  • If you think you may have depression or anxiety talk to your provider right away. Getting treatment early is important for your health and your baby’s health.
  • Ask for help from people you trust. Accept help when they offer. For example, you may need help cleaning the house, or you may want someone to go with you to your prenatal visits.

Last reviewed: October, 2019