Pregnancy Pressures

Major stress has been linked with prematurity, low birth weight and even autism. But there are safe ways to ease the tension.

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You're four months pregnant and feeling stressed out. Your boss is growing impatient with all the time you've been taking off for doctor's appointments. Your car is on its last legs, but with two months of unpaid maternity leave coming up, you can't even think about replacing it. You're worried about how much weight you're gaining, what the results of yesterday's quad marker blood test will show, and whether you'll be a good mother.

Feeling stressed during pregnancy is normal because becoming a parent is a huge life transition, explains Catherine Monk, Ph.D., a prenatal stress researcher and assistant professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. "It's understandable to have ups and downs," she says.

New research shows that such "normal" stress probably won't harm your pregnancy. However, studies have found that major stress, especially early in pregnancy, can increase the risk of preterm birth (before 37 weeks gestation) and low birth weight (less than 5.5 pounds), according to Calvin J. Hobel, M.D., vice chairman of obstetrics at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Major stress can be triggered by the death of a family member, physical or sexual abuse, or the diagnosis of a life-threatening disease. Hobel says there is no known answer to how long-lasting or severe stress needs to be to cause harm. High exposure to chronic stress (e.g., problematic family relationships, unemployment, worries about housing or finances) during pregnancy has been shown to increase the risk of low birth weight.

Hobel also has found evidence that maternal stress hormones can affect the fetal brain long term, making children more anxious and susceptible to stressful events during childhood.

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