How Stress Affects Your Baby in Pregnancy

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Stress is a fact of life. Pregnancy itself has the ability to cause a fair amount of stress, even when everything is just right. While ordinary stresses are not an issue, significant long term stress can create problems during pregnancy. 

Negative Impacts of Stress

Stress can do much more than simply make you anxious. Over time, unmanaged stress can:

  • Decrease your ability to sleep restfully
  • Decrease your ability to eat enough nutritious food throughout your pregnancy
  • Lead to high blood pressure, which is particularly dangerous during pregnancy
  • Lead to headaches and other physical issues which can make pregnancy more difficult
  • Lead to premature birth, which is associated with a number of health and developmental issues

The better you are able to avoid stress, and manage it effectively when it does arise, the better you'll be able to avoid the physical problems that could injure your baby.

The Negative Impacts of Cortisol

Researchers have recently figured out that the stress hormone cortisol is found in measurable amounts as early as the seventeenth week of gestation. They also measured the amounts of cortisol in the mother's blood. When the levels of cortisol were higher in the mother, they were also higher in the amniotic fluid levels.

While in general, cortisol helps a body deal with the stressful situation appropriately, long-term exposure for a fetus is unknown. We do know that long-term exposure in adults leads to illness, depression, and exhaustion, to name a few. In turn, this leads to poor health including high blood pressure, heart disease, and ulcers.

Previous studies indicated that cognitive functioning of the baby was affected, even later in life. It showed that babies with higher cortisol exposure levels in utero had lower IQs at 18 months. Others have indicated that this stress may also lead to an increased risk of developing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

How Much Stress Is Too Much?

All of us experience stress every day. Will the bus be late? Will my boss like the report I wrote? How will my mother in law feel about the name I chose for the baby? But low-level, transient stresses like these are unlikely to create problems for your baby. What kinds of stress are likely to make a negative difference?

  • Catastrophic events such a major illness or death in the family
  • Major, ongoing problems in your relationships with family members or close friends
  • Serious, ongoing issues at work
  • Mental illness such as depression or bipolar disorder

How to Reduce Stress During Pregnancy

Because pregnancy lasts only nine months, it's reasonable to ask and receive extra support -- knowing that you will not necessarily need as much support in the years to come. If you are feeling overwhelmed or pushed, consider:

  • Asking for and saying yes to offered help around the house;
  • Taking part in pregnancy-oriented classes and programs for fitness, relaxation, and bonding.
  • Cutting back on work hours and/or responsibilities, especially if they are physically taxing
  • Splurging on relaxing activities such as prenatal massage, bubble baths, or anything that you feel will lower stress.

It's also very important to manage any ongoing physical or mental issues during pregnancy. Depression or other psychological problems can have a negative impact on your baby if they are not controlled. In addition, remember to do things that lower your stress levels like regular exercise and relaxation. Relaxation has long been taught in childbirth classes and you can also take specific courses in relaxation to help you learn this valuable skill.

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Davis EP, Glynn LM, Schetter CD, Hobel C, Chicz-Demet A, Sandman CA. Prenatal Exposure to Maternal Depression and Cortisol Influences Infant Temperament. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2007 Jun;46(6):737-746.
  • Rodriguez A, Bohlin G. Are maternal smoking and stress during pregnancy related to ADHD symptoms in children? J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2005 Mar;46(3):246-54.
  • Sarkar p, Bergman K, Fisk NM, O’Connor TG, Glover V. Ontogeny of fetal exposure to maternal cortisol using the mid-trimester amniotic fluid as a biomarker 2007 Clinical Endocrinology 66 (5), 636–640.

By Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH
Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH is a professor, author, childbirth and postpartum educator, certified doula, and lactation counselor.