Constant stress may affect your baby ― learn if you’re under pressure, plus, find ways to manage it.

One minute, you’re celebrating impending motherhood, the next, you’re terrified at the prospect of giving birth.

While pregnancy is filled with excitement and life-changing events, it’s also a time when mums-to-be are unprepared for the challenges and stresses that come with being pregnant.

It’s natural to feel a little stressed when you’re expecting, but too much pressure can take a toll on your body and may give rise to developmental problems in your baby.

Cause for concern

Some 70 per cent of expectant mothers experience varying degrees of anxiety and/or depression when they are pregnant. Moderate stress, like being stuck in traffic or dealing with difficult clients at work, won’t cause pregnancy complications. Even mood swings, morning sickness, constipation, fatigue and aches are considered a normal part of pregnancy.

But your stress levels to rise when severe morning sickness or an unexpected turn of event, like a death or an illness, interferes with your life. This could have long-lasting impact on your health, which may lead to prepartum anxiety and depression.

Your stress levels to rise when severe morning sickness or an unexpected turn of event, like a death or an illness, interferes with your life.

Other factors that can cause serious stress are:

1. Negative life events such as financial problems, job loss, divorce or being in an abusive relationship.

2. Fear of labour pain and delivery.

3. Feeling insecure or ill-equipped about caring for baby.

4. Juggling work and family responsibilities. It’s tougher when there is a lack of spousal support or if the employer is too demanding.

Symptoms of prepartum anxiety

Prepartum anxiety occurs during the pregnancy phase before the child is delivered, explains obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Christopher Chong.

This medical condition often goes unrecognised as symptoms, such as tiredness, poor appetite and poor sleep, are similar to those experienced in a normal pregnancy.

Other symptoms include:

i) Feeling an uncontrollable sense of anxiousness.
ii) Weepiness.
iii) Worrying excessively about your health or baby.
iv) An inability to focus.
v) Feeling irritable or agitated.
vi) Feelings of guilt.

Bouts of anxiety may lead to panic attacks. The symptoms include breathlessness, feeling like you’re going crazy, or that something awful may happen. “Severe hyperventilation over a continuous period can cause decreased oxygen to the foetus and affect its growth,” explains Dr Chong.

In severe cases, a depressed woman may be obsessed with thoughts of dying, notes Dr Chong.

Studies show that depression during pregnancy is even more common than postpartum depression, affecting one in eight women. A study of more than 9,000 women, published in The British Medical Journal, shows that the peak point for depression occurs in women who are in their 32nd week of pregnancy.

A mother suffering from this condition is likely to lose interest in her pregnancy, may avoid eating healthily, and even turn to alcohol and tobacco. Depressed mothers also find it more difficult to bond with their babys. Studies show that mums who didn’t have an attachment to their baby in utero had children with emotional problems.



Risks to baby

Your body sends out bursts of cortisol (stress hormone) when there are constantly high levels of anxiety. During pregnancy, you can expect your cortisol level to naturally double and even increase by as much as four times. When cortisol crosses the placenta, it can affect your baby’s brain development or immune system.

Elevated cortisol is associated with risks of early miscarriage, preeclampsia (pregnancy-induced hypertension), low birthweight (less than 2.5kg), foetal growth retardation and premature birth.

Studies show that higher levels of stress during pregnancy may result in postnatal developmental delays — the child may have trouble paying attention or have excessive fear.

Dehydration can affect your mood or make you more prone to headaches. Aim for six to eight glasses (about 1.5 litres) of fluid a day.

Although mild cases of anxiety don’t require any specific treatment, it’s still a good idea to talk to your doctor about how you feel.

Dr Chong advises mums to continue with the activities they normally enjoy to keep stress at bay. “Take a holiday, exercise or find a hobby, there’s no fixed method,” he suggests.

18 ways to handle stress

Follow these tips to enjoy a stress-free pregnancy.

1. Relax… Don’t let anxiety get the best of you.

2. Identify what’s stressing you out Talk to your spouse, a friend or your doctor.

3. Pregnancy discomforts are temporary Speak to your gynae on how you can deal with them.

4. Stay fit Work out to increase your “happy hormone” (including endorphins] or serotonin levels. Find exercises that suit the different stages of pregnancy.

5. Listen to your body If you’re exhausted, go to bed early. You could also be low on iron, an important nutrient in pregnancy and breastfeeding. So, check with a doctor.

6. Eat well Take sufficient omega-3 fatty acids (found in salmon and cod fish) as depression has been associated with insufficient amounts.

7. Get plenty of fluids Dehydration can affect your mood or make you more prone to headaches. Aim for six to eight glasses (about 1.5 litres) of fluid a day.

8. Establish a good support network Join online mummy forums or seek out other mums at your antenatal or exercise classes. They may also share similar concerns.

9. Accept offers of help If you need a hand to clean the house or want someone to accompany you to your prenatal visits, ask people you trust.

10. Sign up for prenatal classes This way, you’ll know what to expect during pregnancy and after your baby arrives.

11. Learn to say “no” to extra tasks or duties Don’t try to take on more than you can handle.

12. Learn to let go Recognise that becoming tense and frustrated will not change or improve the situation.

13. Pamper yourself Take a warm bath or go for a pedicure.

14. Listen to music Music helps to control your cortisol levels.

15. Keep lavender essential oil in your bag When you feel stressed, put a drop on your wrist and rub the wrists and hands together. Massage the back of your neck and tops of your shoulders.

16. Try prenatal yoga or meditation Prenatal yoga not only tones and stretches your body, it also teaches you to control your anxiety using breathing and relaxation techniques.

17. Ease money problems Make a list of items you’ll need and decide which ones you can borrow from friends or family.

18. If you’re depressed, seek treatment early Contact KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital’s Perinatal Depression Support Group at 6394-2205. It helps women who experience prenatal or postnatal depression and anxiety.

Photos: iStock

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