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  • Dr. Katie O'Connor

Worry in the Womb - Could your stress be affecting your baby before it's even born?

Updated: May 20, 2020

If you’re at all like me then it’s probable that you live a busy life with a lot of things in it that have the potential to stress you out.  Careers, kids, puppies, spouses, family members, the check engine light in your car, student loan debt, your ever increasing waistline...

Whatever it is, did you know that your body can’t tell the difference between physical stress and emotional stress?!  What does that even mean?

Imagine you are taking an evening stroll.  You’re walking next to the forest preserve and it’s dark and everything’s beautiful.  You’re breathing in the fresh air, enjoying the peace and all of a sudden you hear a twig snap in the trees to your left.  You stare into the trees but can see nothing.  Just as you continue your walk, you hear a couple more twigs snapping.  Whipping your head around you still see nothing.  You eyes are wide, your heart rate kicks up and you pick up the pace.  Now you can hear what sounds like footsteps coming toward you from the woods.  Your heart is pounding and your mouth has gone dry and you’re walking so fast it’s almost a jog.  More rustling.  Without taking one more look you take off in sprint toward the curve in the path that leads to the parking lot, relief washing over you as you enter the well lit area.  Yet, even as you sit locked in your car your heart takes a while to slow down, your breathing, and the hair standing up on your neck.

Whew!  I hate that scared feeling! Thank goodness that doesn’t happen every day...or does it?

While no one enjoys being scared, at least this physical type of stress is very temporary, and it’s the reason our systems were designed that way in order to keep us from harm.  The problem that we run into is that when you are stressed chemically or emotionally, your body reacts about the same way.

All the things that happen when you are physically stressed/scared like you heart rate increasing, blood pressure rising, breathing faster, muscles tensing; these are your body’s fight/flight response to a stressful situation.  In preparation to outrun your attacker, your body shuts down systems like digestion, regular hormone regulation, and repair and it switches on it’s systems that are much more important to your immediate need to survive.

Can you see how this is becoming an issue? If we are constantly under stress, then our bodies are in a state where they are not able to perform all of their regular rest/digest/repair functions, and we have crazy levels of our stress hormones like cortisol running around preventing our systems from working correctly, causing chronic inflammation and more.  This type of thing can only go on so long before syndromes like IBS or chronic fatigue, or autoimmune disorders begin to show up.

So let’s dive into how this effect us during pregnancy.  It has now been shown that our stress responses are felt by the baby inutero.  Let’s say you’re arguing with your spouse, or your boss and things are getting heated. Or you’re sitting on the highway with a flat tire, or your other two kids just threw your favorite bracelet down the toilet.  All these things that cause you emotional upset, feel like our “woods scenario” to the baby growing on the inside.  They don’t have the capacity yet to realize that the danger isn’t “real”, that it’s just an emotional situation your currently dealing with.

Research studies are showing that our babies feel everything that we feel while they are in the womb.  Their inability to emotionally understand these stressors creates a situation in where all of the stress responses are present but they have no way of processing this information.  In fact, the evidence suggests that repeated exposure to these stressors is how the baby will develop it’s environmental stress response.  What does that mean?  It means that babes that are exposed to increased amounts of stress while inside their mother are born with an increased response to stress.  These infants may be more fussy, harder to settle, and there are even some studies showing that this response can stay with them all the way into adulthood relating to psychological issues such as anxiety, as well as physical conditions like autoimmune disorders. 

I certainly never want to panic my pregnant mamas (pun intended), but this information is really too important to sugar coat.  We need to look at ways to actively reduce or deal with stress and drama while we are pregnant so that we can keep our little ones safe and healthy.

Tips to Reduce Stress

1. Learn to say no - a lot of stress in life comes from being overextended.  We want to be at every shower, birthday party, christening, girls night and soccer game, but at this time of life, you really can’t just do it all.  Prioritizing which events are truly important to YOU to attend and then saying no to the rest can take a lot off your plate at this time.  

2. Take time for “white space” - White space is time where nothing is planned.  It can end up being filled however you want it, but sometimes even knowing that you have some time coming up where there is nothing you “have” to do can be stress relieving.

3. Ask for help - this is a time in your life where you might need a few extra hands.  Ask your partner to double up on a few chores.   Get your kiddos more involved.  Have the neighbor take your dog out or mow your lawn.  Use Instacart or another grocery service for getting the shopping done.  Hire a babysitter.  Find ways you can delegate tasks to take some time to relax. And remember its not selfish, it’s literally keeping your baby safer!

4. Find a stress relieving activity - There will be times when you can’t avoid the stress.  In those times, all we can do is find a way to reduce that stress and get back into relax mode as quickly as possible to minimize its effects on baby.  Things like meditation, affirmations, EFT (tapping), adult coloring books, knitting, taking a walk, or simple breathing exercises are all ways that we can re-engage with our restful side of our nervous system and turn off that fight/flight response.

5. Find a good prenatal course - When polled, a lot of my mamas said that some of the most stressful things during pregnancy are the unknowing.  What tests to run, how many ultrasounds to have, should I have an epidural, do I want to have a water birth, should my mother in law be there during labor,  do I have everything I need, is my baby still healthy???  All of these questions add up to a lot of stress, especially when the good old internet has waaaay too many differing answers.  This is why I created Conscious Choices, Blissful Birth; a full eight module course that can help ease the stress by answering a lot of these questions and help you feel more relaxed and in control of pregnancy. Hypnobirthing is also an excellent resource for reducing stress throughout pregnancy and during labor.

Don’t let this post stress, you out! Simply use it as a way to feel empowered and more in control of your baby’s health.  The only way we can do better is by knowing!

Need more info about the birth course? 

Dr. Katie O'Connor is the expert prenatal chiropractor at Life Naturally Chiropractic, an Orland Park, Illinois based chiropractic office specializing in the care of women before during and after pregnancy. Contact Dr. Katie O’Connor at Life Naturally Chiropractic for more information today.

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