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5 Easy Tips on How to Manage Stress During Pregnancy

By Claire Gillespie
Reviewed by Elizabeth Eden, M.D.
August 21, 2023
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Having a baby can be an incredible experience—but it also comes with its fair share of stress. Everyone’s experience is different, but there are some common pregnancy stressors, says Paige Bellenbaum, a licensed master social worker and founding director of the Motherhood Center of New York, in New York City, which provides supportive services for new and expecting moms, including those experiencing perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs).

Many people worry about losing the pregnancy—particularly in the first trimester and especially if they’ve previously experienced pregnancy loss—as well as fetal complications and health issues. Fear or anxiety around when and how to tell people is also common, partly due to the enduring stigma surrounding talking about miscarriage.

And then there’s the considerable pressure of feeling like things “should” be one way or another: I should be enjoying my pregnancy more; I should be more excited about being a parent; I should feel more connected to this baby; I should be eating better… The list of expectations is endless.

“Pregnancy marks a profound shift in our relationships and in our roles—and involves major changes in women's daily functioning,” says Elisabeth Netherton, M.D., a psychiatrist with MindPath Care Centers in Houston. For some, pregnancy also involves a new set of stressors: navigating the U.S. medical system, paying for care, changes in relationships or work life, and planning for the needs of the baby after birth.

The pandemic adds an additional layer of stress during pregnancy, adds Bellenbaum. You may find yourself worrying about getting vaccinated, missing important prenatal appointments, exposing your infant to the coronavirus, or a lack of access to crucial supplies, like baby formula.

How Stress Affects Pregnancy

Stress gets a bad name, but as a general rule, it doesn’t have to be harmful. “We need to experience some stress to function, and experiencing stress can often be a positive motivator,” Netherton says. “For example, if I wasn’t a bit stressed about being on time to work, I might not make the effort to wake up on time to go.”

How Much Stress Is Too Much When Pregnant?

When pregnancy stressors are overwhelming or aren't managed well, they can have a negative impact—on both you and your baby.

“Overwhelming and chronic stress can contribute to difficulty sleeping, depression, and anxiety, and physically can contribute to a host of negative medical outcomes,” Netherton says. “We increasingly understand that stressors that women undergo in pregnancy have the potential to impact the pregnancy outcome not only through the potential for increased risk of preterm delivery or increased risk of low birth weight for the baby but also through the intergenerational transmission of trauma.”

In other words, a parent’s trauma could cause actual changes in a child’s DNA and potentially affect their health, some research suggests.

The results of one study conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Zurich indicated that when a mother was stressed over a prolonged period of time during pregnancy, the concentration of stress hormones in her amniotic fluid was more likely to rise. These hormones could potentially affect fetal growth, according to the researchers. However, short-term stressful situations did not appear to have an unfavorable effect on the development of the fetus.

5 Ways to Manage Stress During Pregnancy

By taking the following steps to manage stress during pregnancy, you can reduce your risk of negative health consequences that could occur as a result.

1. Prioritize a Good Night’s Sleep

For low levels of stress, healthy lifestyle habits can go a long way. “One of the things that gets most often dismissed during pregnancy and the postpartum period is the need for adequate sleep,” Netherton says. “We know that depriving people of sleep makes them anxious and depressed … and yet as a society, we seem to expect [pregnant people and new parents] to tolerate it with ease.”

It’s important to remember that it’ll be more difficult to adequately manage your stress during pregnancy if you aren't getting enough rest. Netherton recommends aiming for eight hours per night, with at least six of those uninterrupted.

This may be easier said than done, especially in the third trimester, when it can be tough to get comfortable in bed. But using pillows to prop yourself into a comfy position and practicing relaxation techniques before bed can help you get better sleep during pregnancy.

2. Eat Well and Stay Hydrated

Other good strategies for managing stress during pregnancy include ensuring that you’re eating well and drinking plenty of water. By getting good nutrition during pregnancy, avoiding junk food and processed sugar, and staying hydrated, you’ll be able to keep your energy level up, which can help you more easily handle any stressors that come your way.

3. Exercise Regularly

Regular exercise is a well-known stress reducer, and it may also help you ease some pregnancy symptoms and discomforts. Walking is an easy option to work into your routine. Bellenbaum recommends prenatal yoga, which can help you stay fit, relax, and prepare for labor. If you’re interested in more intensive workouts, talk to your doctor about exercise routines that are safe for you and your baby at your stage of pregnancy.

4. Skip the Unnecessary To-Dos

Often, how you manage stress during pregnancy is just as much about what you don’t do. “Be mindful that additional self-care during pregnancy can take the form of managing your schedule to deprioritize things that aren't strictly necessary or don't add to your well‑being,” Netherton says.

5. Talk to Someone You Trust

Sometimes venting to someone about how we’re feeling can help us feel better. It’s also a good idea to ask for help. Perhaps a friend or a family member can help you build the crib or fill out medical forms, or do anything else that’s causing you stress.

What to Do When Pregnancy Stress Isn’t Manageable

If you think you need more than a few extra hours of sleep and prenatal yoga to get a handle on your stress during pregnancy, talk to your doctor. Adding therapy and/or medication can be effective and helpful for some people.

Therapy and certain medications can “help lower cortisol levels, decreasing the potential for adverse impact to the fetus and improving quality of life for the birthing parent,” explains Bellenbaum. “There is mounting evidence that many SSRIs (a class of drugs typically used as antidepressants) are safe and effective for both pregnant and postpartum women to take.”

Your doctor can help you weigh the benefits of taking medication during pregnancy against the potential consequences linked to untreated insomnia or depression. A solid support system of family, friends, and professionals around can make it a little easier to navigate stress during pregnancy or any other mental health hurdles you encounter on the path to parenthood.

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