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Can Emotional Stress Affect My Baby? Science Explains The Risks Of Being Too Stressed

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I don't think I've ever felt as much stress in my life as I have during TTC and pregnancy. There was just so much to consider between doctor's appointments, expectations, fears for my child, and the overwhelming sickness that accompanied my pregnancy. My normal OCD and ADHD went into hyperdrive, and it began to feel like I was spinning out of control. Of course, I began to worry over what all that stress was doing to my child. I needed to know — can emotional stress affect my baby? As it turns out, there might be some cause for concern.

Stress, in any form, can have a negative impact not only on the health of the mother, but also the health of the child, according to researchers at the University of Zurich. It's not just the physical or natural stressors we're all accustomed to, but also the emotional stress that builds up over the course of days and weeks. According to the study, it actually increases the levels of stress hormones that are present in the amniotic fluid that surrounds the baby, and can have a detrimental effect on their development, possibly leading to disorders such as ADHD.

It sounds like such a cyclical problem. I have ADHD and chronic anxiety, I experienced both in heavy doses during my pregnancy, and now my son has ADHD. It's not a fun cycle.

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Dr. Elysia Davis explained to Newsweek how the systems of emotional and natural stress affect your baby while you're pregnant through the hormone cortisol. Thank goodness it's not all doom and gloom. Davis noted, “Cortisol plays an important role in regulating the maturation of the fetus, such as lung development. These stress systems in the body aren’t just there to cause damage or harm us.”

But she's not exactly giving us the free pass to cut out our meditation and yoga either. She noted that excesses of stress can have a lasting effect on your child's stress reactions and their overall wellbeing. She said that in studies, there was a noted difference in children exposed to masses of stress in utero. “These toddlers consistently showed more fearful behaviors in response to what are standard laboratory measures.”

And apparently, it doesn't matter which trimester you're in. I learned that emotional stress can affect my baby from day one until delivery, according to Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. "There is not any specific vulnerable period of gestation; prenatal stress effects vary for different gestational ages possibly depending on the developmental stage of specific brain areas and circuits, stress system and immune system," researchers concluded.

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And the effects aren't only mental, according to psychotherapist Dr. Sue Gerhardt, who wrote in her book Why Love Matters, that the effects can also be physical, such as restricted growth and low birth weight to high blood pressure and diabetes in adulthood. However, she also gives moms-to-be hope when she discusses how love also plays a role in the development of the baby. She wrote, "If things have not gone well during pregnancy, all is not lost by any means. These questions are still open to further interpretation by the baby in the postnatal period." At which point, the baby's brain is only a quarter its final size, and malleable to influences like love, attachment, and nutrition.

There's never going to be a perfect pregnancy, and stress is likely to be a part of it. Do what you can to mitigate stress during your pregnancy. This may mean relying more heavily on your community as per the advice of a study from Southern California State University. Trying meditation, exercising, or cutting back hours at work if possible can also help. Emotional stress is pretty scary on its own, and seems so much scarier when you're pregnant. Talk to someone, get help if you need it, and hopefully, you can feel just a little better.

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.