Baby cot? Check. Car seat? Check. Going-home clothes for baby? Check. Two months before her due date early last year, Janice Renganathan had pretty much finished ticking off all the tasks on her to-do list. Yet, prepped as she was, she wasn’t prepared when she started getting contractions at 35 weeks.
Janice, 35, recalls, “Work started piling up in the months leading up to my due date and as a journalist, my hours were long and hectic. I was also not sleeping well and I think all of this contributed to my high stress level.”
She was hospitalised for a day, given medication to stop the contractions and ordered to go on bed rest. When she stopped the meds a week later, she went into labour soon after.
“My water broke when I was alone at home and within hours of reaching the hospital, I’d given birth to Dylan ― he was four weeks early and a small baby at 2.8kg.”
Convinced that stress had sent her into preterm labour, Janice vows to take things easier for her next baby. “The last few months of pregnancy are crucial to my baby’s development, so for my next pregnancy, I’m going to prioritise well and make sure I avoid stress and any negative feelings as much as possible.”
“The body releases cortisol, also known as a stress hormone, in response to various kinds of stress and babies can feel this directly.”
Happy mummy = Happy baby
Many mums-to-be are reminded constantly to eat well and take it easy during those crucial nine months. However, most are unaware just how much a baby in utero can be affected by his mother’s roller coaster of emotions ― due mainly to raging hormones and environmental factors.
Explains Dr Hana Ra Adams, a marriage and family therapist at the Change Group LLP,” The body releases cortisol, also known as a stress hormone, in response to various kinds of stress and babies can feel this directly. In the long term, babies who are exposed to high levels of stress can be more susceptible to stress later in life.”
Research from the Imperial College London in the UK have also noted that cortisol levels in a pregnant mother’s blood can start getting higher from as early as 17 weeks’ gestation ― which is a lot of time for your little one to be exposed to stress.
Dr Adams adds that babies are so sensitive to their mother’s emotions, they might even pick up on a change in their breathing patterns. “Studies have seen babies scrunch up their faces and increase movements when they feel a surge of cortisol coming on.
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Dr Vanessa von Auer is only too familiar with this phenom. The clinical psychologist and owner of VA Psychology Centre realised that while she was pregnant with Alannah, now 2 months, her baby would start kicking her vigorously on days when she was up to her neck with work or handling difficult clients.
“Once I realised that my anxiety was affecting my baby, I made an effort to slow down and stay calm,” says von Auer.
SmartParents ob-gyn expert Dr Christopher Chong, who practises at Gleneagles Hospital, explains that stress can lead to a decline in health as it can cause the heart rate to increase, as well as give rise to high blood pressure and depression. It may lead to poor diet choices. In severe cases, the blood vessels constrict, which reduces the flow of blood to the child.
Dr Chong warns, “These conditions can cause growth restrictions in the child and result in premature labour or delivery.”
Studies have also found that maternal depression can actually put children at increased risk of similar mood disorders as they grow.
Not only can stress affect your little one while she’s still in your belly, studies have also found that maternal depression can actually put children at increased risk of similar mood disorders as they grow.
This is due to the changes in the amygdala, a part of the brain that controls emotion and stress, and is linked to anxiety disorders. Plus, toddlers born to stressed mothers-to-be might also display lower than average IQs and are more likely to be hyperactive.
“The constricting of the blood vessels and the decrease in blood flow to the baby can affect brain growth,” Dr Chong explains.
Still, not many women are willing to seek help as there’s a stigma attached to people who suffer from depression. Also, since mums-to-be are expected to be filled with excitement over their pending arrival, they are ashamed to feel otherwise.
However, Dr Adams strongly urges expectant mothers to take care of themselves first. “Look out for common signs such as difficulty concentrating, insomnia or excessive sleeping, and a persistent feeling of sadness and anxiety,” she says. “And seek help immediately ―it should be in the form of a one-to-one with a therapist or in a group setting.”
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Get a grip
It’s important to deal with any negative emotions before your baby arrives, especially since you’ll need to take on the challenges of being a new mother.
“Your feelings are likely to deteriorate into depression, unless treatment is started,” warn Dr Chong, who always makes it a point to keep a close eye on his postpartum patients. “I always ask them how they’re feeling and if they’re coping well. I’ll also speak to their spouse and family members.”
According to Dr Chong, about 20 per cent of women in Singapore suffer from pre- or postpartum depression every year and if this condition is left untreated, it may affect the mum’s ability to bond with her baby.
Rebecca Tan, 33, a first-time mum to Alex, 11 months, couldn’t agree more. “Juggling a newborn with sleepless nights and breastfeeding problems almost drove me crazy,” Tan reveals. “I started resenting my baby for making me feel the way I did and it prevented me from getting close to him initially.”
Research shows that very early mother-baby interactions releases oxytocin, the love hormone, so a deficiency may result in long-term developmental setbacks for a child. These could come in the form of behavioural and cognitive problems and even a lower IQ,
Like most mums, Tan initially chalked up her behaviour to the “baby blues” and decided to wait it out. However, by five months when things hadn’t improved and even worsened, she started to worry.
Dr Adams notes, “Mothers who tend to feel distant from their children or lack a connection with them can start becoming less responsive to their babies’ needs. They may also become easily frustrated or angered and their self-confidence can be low.”
“The minute I let go of what I couldn’t control, and asked for more help from my family and friends ― I started feeling happier.”
Cry for help
In severe cases, a depressed mother may contemplate suicide or even killing her baby. Tan, afraid that she would spiral out of control, started seeing a counsellor with her husband’s support.
She was diagnosed with situation depression ― a short-term mood disorder that occurs after a person has been through series of traumatic life changes. In Tan’s case, a previous miscarriage followed by a not-so-easy pregnancy.
“Since I didn’t work through these issues before Alex came along, they added to my stress and anxiety levels, which caused me to act the way I did.”
Tan adds that after counselling, she realised that obstacles in her quest to become the “perfect mum” ― a label many modern mums strive for ― also contributed to her depression. She was disappointed when she was not able to extend her breastfeeding efforts and was also trying to handle everything on her own.
“The minute I let go of what I couldn’t control, and asked for more help from my family and friends – who were more than happy to oblige – I started feeling happier, began enjoying my baby and became a better mum!”
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Lead the way
Lightening up not only keeps your marriage strong, your little one will be better cared for, too. “A happy home equals a happy baby as both parents affect how a child develops,” Dr Adam notes. “So the stability a couple has, as well as their own mental well-being, can affect the baby’s environment and the level of care he gets.”
If may sound startling, but Dr von Auer notes that up to 50 per cent of couples who attend her parenting workshops admit they’re not happy to be parents. Common complaints include investing most of their time and energy on work and their kiddos, which leaves them completely exhausted when it comes to couple time.
Dr von Auer advises, “You can work around it by spending quality time, even if it means sneaking in a huge or a kiss here and there.” On her part, after her daughter’s arrival, she implemented a 10-minute cuddle rule every night with her husband, so as to strengthen their connection.
Emotions are infectious, so when your spouse loves you unconditionally, the happiness and security you feel will spill over to bubba, since you’ll be warmer and more responsive to your children. In the same way, when you’re stressed, your tot may pick up on these negative feelings, which trigger their own anxiety.
“Your children reflect you. If you want to raise confident and well-adjusted kids, you have to first exude those qualities.”
You are also your child’s biggest role model, Dr Chong states. “Your kids may be observing, learning and judging you without you even realising it.”
So, if you’re an anxious parent who overreacts to everything, such as rushing your little one to the hospital every time he bumps his head or has a fall, you’re sending out a message to him that the world is a scary place, so he’ll always need to be on guard.
Adds Dr von Auer, “Kids react to everything, including your body language and your facial expressions.”
However, if you’re more relaxed and have an easy-going personality, you’ll allow your child to learn to pick himself up and brush off his minor scrapes and bruises. This way, you’ll boost his self-confidence and prepare him to take on the world out there calmly.
Dr Adams points out, “Your children reflect you. If you want to raise confident and well-adjusted kids, you have to first exude those qualities, and the best way to do that is to be content and present in the moment.”
On your part, this means realising that a difficult moment doesn’t make your day, week or year a bad one. You just need to look for a positive angle or find the upside for yourself and your family.
This story was first published in the May 2015 edition of Mother & Baby magazine.
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