It’s a very important question to ask during pregnancy – Can anxiety harm the unborn baby?
We hate to say it, but yes, stress and anxiety affect pregnancy and can have negative effects on the baby.
That’s why you should never ignore anxiety problems hoping they’ll go away, but instead work on finding ways to reduce your anxiety.
Pregnancy can be a very scary time and with so much going on, anxieties can easily build up to gigantic proportions.
Here we’ll take a brief look at what outcomes for babies with anxious mothers studies have indicated, other health effects of anxiety.
Plus some ways to take charge of anxiety in pregnancy and reduce its effects.
You got this mama.
Anxiety During Pregnancy – Effects on Baby
What do scientific studies say about the effects of maternal anxiety on the developing baby?
Low birth-weight and premature labor and delivery are associated with maternal stress due to anxiety.
Some studies also indicate the increased risk of ADHD and ADD, childhood anxiety and separation disorders, and developmental delays to children whose mothers suffer severe stress during pregnancy.
However, the evidence for these isn’t very strong.
While it is generally accepted that mothers who have severe anxiety have increased risks for these problems, it is less clear how, why, and to what degree.
After all, severe anxiety is a vague term.
Each woman handles anxiety differently from another and no two expectant mothers have the exact same stressors.
In addition, while there are lots of theories to how stress harms the woman and unborn child, there is no clear answer.
Your Immune System Could Suffer
But one thing is certain, the stress caused by anxiety can quickly decimate an expectant mother’s immune system, leaving her open to frequent illness.
While it is unlikely that most common illnesses would directly harm the fetus, some – including the flu – are linked with preterm labor.
Fevers in pregnancy can also lead to birth defects, especially neural tube defects.
Dehydration and severe vomiting/diarrhea have also been known to trigger premature delivery.
Anxious Mother, Anxious Baby
In addition, stress and anxiety in pregnancy cause a dramatic increase in cortisol levels.
Cortisol is vital in the development of the lungs of infants and levels are expected to rise during pregnancy.
If a baby is exposed to too much cortisol during pregnancy, however, they may become hyper-sensitive to stress.
Studies show this sensitivity endures well into the toddler years.
Thus an anxious mother will have an anxious baby.
Obviously, it would be better for both the mother and the baby that a woman avoids excess anxiety during pregnancy.
However, learning to manage anxiety may be more important than avoiding it.
Unhealthy Pregnancy Due to Anxiety
One school of thought on why anxiety can cause problems in pregnancy is that ineffective coping skills can lead to unhealthy behaviors and habits.
Poor diet, alcohol and drug use, smoking, over-consumption of caffeine and excessive use of over-the-counter pain relievers and sleep aides are examples of these unhealthy behaviors.
Moreover, women who have very stressful lives are unlikely to be under LESS stress after the birth of a child.
This means the environment that the infant born into is going to also cause the child anxiety as he or she develops.
This could easily explain the increased risk for attention deficit disorders, anxiety, and even some developmental delays.
So there, you can be anxious about being anxious.
Commit to Finding Ways to Reduce Anxiety
Now that you know that anxiety and stress can cause real issues for you and your baby, there are basically two ways to go about solving the problem: reducing anxiety and learning how to cope with it.
Either way, seeking out a counselor or therapist might not be a bad idea.
Therapy doesn’t necessarily need to be about deep psychological journeys (although it can be).
Most therapists are trained to help with various strategies that could decrease anxiety, including time-management, organization, and even budgeting.
They also, of course, can help with relaxation techniques and emotional support.
Finally, those who struggle with anxiety are more likely to develop postpartum depression.
Education in recognizing the signs and symptoms of PDD and having an established relationship with a counselor in place couldn’t hurt.
Otherwise, remember that occasional, temporary bouts of anxiety are completely normal for everyone, pregnant or not, and are unlikely to cause any lasting ill-effects.
For these moments, think self-care and relaxation.
A quiet, warm bath in a candle-lit bathroom was my go-to. Meditation, yoga, nature walks along safe trails, and even a night of Netflix (with chill or without) might fit the bill as well.
In general, anything that is safe, diverts your mind, and is enjoyable is perfect.
Now you have the excuse to do it more often. This holds true after the baby arrives as well.
Severe and/or chronic anxiety during pregnancy requires professional intervention. For help finding a mental health professional in your area, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI in the U.S. or Minds Information Hot-Line at 0300 123 3393 in the U.K. If you feel you may harm yourself or others, contact emergency services immediately.