Stress in pregnancy not all bad news for babies

Pregnancy stress doesn't always have negative outcomes.
Pregnancy stress doesn't always have negative outcomes. Photo: Shutterstock

For years, we've been told certain things are 'bad' for us when we're pregnant.

From soft cheese to drinking; smoking to stress.

Now new research, published online in the journal Psychological Science in February this year, has found one of those supposed "nasties" might not be so terrible after all.

Instead of causing an anxious baby, the research found that stress in pregnancy may actually promote developmental plasticity in babies.

"It looks like prenatal stress can be good for us if we are lucky enough to have a supportive environment postnatally," said researcher Sarah Hartman.

The study was performed on prairie voles, rodents with human-like qualities such as the ability to develop emotional attachments.

(Obviously, it wouldn't have been ethical to perform such research on pregnant women.)

For the study, half the voles were put in a stressful situation towards the end of their pregnancy, and half weren't.

After the babies were born, they were given to adoptive parents, half of who were attentive, and half who were negligent.


A few months later, those babies stress hormones were checked and they were evaluated for anxious behaviour.

Rather than being affected by the stress their mothers experienced in pregnancy, their anxiety levels were more influenced by the level of care they received after birth.

These findings make sense to Kirstin Bouse, clinical psychologist and author of The Conscious Mother.

However, she says it's only natural for expectant mums to worry about the effects of stress on their baby.

While she says some degree of stress in pregnancy "isn't necessarily a bad thing," she notes intense pressure for protracted periods of time isn't good for anyone's health.

That kind of strain can occur when huge life events happen, such as the breakdown of a relationship, or losing a loved one.

If your stress is less significant, it can actually be good for you, says Bouse.

Take a seemingly high-pressured job.

While others may worry about its affect on your pregnancy, Bouse reassures that if you thrive under such circumstances, you're fine.

"We have to keep in mind individual differences, because what one person would find stressful, another person doesn't."

Regardless of the magnitude of your pressures, Bouse says their effect on your baby has more to do with how you cope with such stressors, rather than their presence.

She recommends starting with the basics.

That is, aiming for a good amount of sleep each night while focusing on eating well and exercising regularly.

Social support can also help.

"It's not about having lots of people around you; it's about having meaningful connections and relationships."

But even under enormously stressful circumstances, such as losing a parent, Bouse says you can manage your stress levels.

One way to do that is by finding parts of your life you can control, such as how you spend your time or what you put in your body.

"We don't like not having control," Bouse notes. "[So] if we can at least feel we have a bit of control in our lives then that's the key thing."

Besides, she reassures, feeling under pressure when pregnant doesn't necessarily mean you'll have a baby who's "wired" for stress.

As researcher Jay Belsky from this study noted, "Prenatal stress might actually promote child well-being when children are reared in supportive environments".

And Bouse says you'll have plenty of opportunities to provide that supportive environment when your baby comes.

She says simply being engulfed by the "baby bubble" can help protect your baby, as can having a good birth experience, bonding with your baby quite quickly and feeling like you're doing an okay job as a mother.

Besides, she says, an anxious baby may just be the baby's temperament combined with her family history and genes, rather than attributable to stress you experienced while pregnant.

So you're better off aiming to be a "good enough" mother to your baby once she arrives, "and not being so fussed about the wiring in the brain".