Researchers have found that stress in pregnancy may influence infants’ brain development and mums-to-be are being encouraged to find ways to relax and reduce stress – anything from spa days and taking a babymoon to hiring a cleaner or seeking counselling to help ease the mental load.
A new study by the University of Edinburgh suggests that the stress level in a mother is related to changes in the areas of a baby’s brain that are linked to emotional development.
It’s the first time that scientists have used an objective measure (levels of the hormone cortisol) in the mum to find links with infant brain development. The University of Edinburgh scientists took hair samples from 78 pregnant women to measure their levels of cortisol in the previous three months. Their babies then had brain scans, which showed higher levels of cortisol in the mother’s hair were linked to structural changes in the infants’ amygdala, as well as differences in brain connections.
Scientists say this could explain why children whose mothers experienced high levels of stress during pregnancy may be more likely to have emotional issues in later life. They do however point out that the study didn’t assess emotion in children.
“This research highlights how important it is to support women’s mental health during pregnancy to ensure that their needs are met and that their babies have the best start in life,” Chair of Theirworld Sarah Brown said. “Helping mothers cope with stress is an important step to ensure both mum and baby thrive.”
How to manage pregnancy stress
Psychotherapist and founder of Rough Patch Amber Rules told Mum’s Grapevine that pregnant women shouldn’t panic over the new research.
“Every parent wants to do their best for their child, and stress is a normal part of life, so some stress during pregnancy will be unavoidable. However, what this research indicates is that learning how to manage stress with psychoeducation and counselling support will make it easier. Talking to a counsellor can help you manage stress, differentiate between what is helpful worry vs unhelpful worry, and decide where you want to channel your limited energy while going through such a huge life change like pregnancy.”
She says there are plenty of ways expecting mums can manage their stress, but the approach isn’t one size fits all. “For example, you might love spa days and that really helps you relax, so prioritising that can be helpful. However, if you go to the spa and then spend the whole time feeling worried about the things that are waiting for you at home, it may not be useful, and may even make you feel worse.
A more helpful approach might be to ask for help from a trusted friend or family member, discuss how you’re feeling, pay someone to do a task that you’ve been stressed about doing yourself, or connect with someone who makes you feel supported.”
Amber suggests pregnant women try and let go of perfectionism, and not be afraid to mess up. “We know from research that having a gentle, compassionate, and accepting stance towards ourselves can reduce stress and worry. Pregnant people managing stress can benefit from doing less, not more, and practising acceptance. For example, ask yourself – is the thing you’re stressed about a priority? Can it wait? Will it cause irreversible problems if it doesn’t get addressed, or are you able to come back to it later? Pregnant people can’t do everything, and there will be things you have to prioritise or let go of.”
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed, reach out for help via one of the many Australian pregnancy and parenting helplines.
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If you’re feeling overwhelmed with how much you need to get done during pregnancy, use one of our handy checklists to help ease the stress: