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5 Tips to Manage Stress During Pregnancy

By Claire Gillespie
Reviewed by Elizabeth Eden, M.D. , Susan Ko, Ph.D.
January 19, 2024
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Article Highlights:

  • It’s common to experience different types of stress during pregnancy.
  • Some stress during pregnancy is okay, but too much can sometimes cause problems for both the parent and their baby.
  • There are some specific ways to manage pregnancy stress. They range from lifestyle changes to medication and therapy.

Having a baby can be an incredible experience—but there can also be a fair share of stress during pregnancy. Stress is a normal part of everyday life, including during those nine months. But being seriously stressed out for an extended period of time isn’t good for anyone. And that includes your growing baby!

There are some different types of stress you might experience during pregnancy. It's important to know how to spot them, and ways to reduce stress during pregnancy.

Types of Stress During Pregnancy

types of stress during pregnancy

Everyone’s experience is different, but there are some common types of stress during pregnancy. These are a few you may experience:

Emotional Stress During Pregnancy

“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.

Changing hormones, fatigue, and other uncomfortable symptoms, can make managing your emotions feel more difficult. Mood swings are common during pregnancy, according to the March of Dimes.

It’s also common to feel a bit of fear or anxiety about when to announce a pregnancy. This is partly due to the stigma attached to sharing about miscarriage.

And of course, 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.

Work-Related and Financial Stress During Pregnancy

In today’s increasingly expensive world, pregnancy can involve a new set of financial stressors. After all, a recent study suggests that the cost of delivering a baby in the United States can cost $18,865, and even parents who have health insurance can pay as much as $2,854.

And then there’s paying for childcare, which, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, can range from $7,461 to more than $15,000 per year for full-time center-based infant care.

You may also worry about how you’re going to pay for supplies, like baby formula.

Relationship Stress During Pregnancy

You’ll likely notice changes in your relationships with people in your life—that may include a partner, people in your family, and/or friends. Those changes may start before the baby arrives.

But not all of these changes need to be a source of relationship stress during pregnancy. Steady communication, setting clear expectations, and sharing your needs with the people in your life can go a long way toward keeping your bonds strong as your relationships and family life change.

Set time to connect with important people in your life. Schedule date night, family dinners, a walk in the park together, or an outing to a favorite cafe, for example.

Maternal Stress During Pregnancy

While you’re pregnant, your health—and healthcare—may be constantly on your mind.

Some people are concerned about losing the pregnancy—particularly in the first trimester and especially if they’ve previously experienced pregnancy loss. For others, fetal complications and health issues are top of mind.

You may find yourself worrying about getting vaccinated, missing important prenatal appointments, exposing your infant to viruses like the flu and COVID-19, and what to expect from childbirth.

What are the Effects of Stress During Pregnancy?

effects of stress during pregnancy

Stress gets a bad rap, 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.”

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

Signs of Stress During Pregnancy

“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.

Stress can show itself through a host of physical symptoms. According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, here are just some of the signs of stress during pregnancy:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Anxiety
  • Frequent headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Loss of appetite
  • Overeating

Stress can sometimes cause concerning symptoms, such as spotting, bleeding, or cramping.

“Stress induces the release of certain hormones like cortisol, which can impact blood vessels, potentially leading to complications like bleeding during pregnancy,” says Shandra Scruggs, R.N., a labor and delivery nurse at St. Francis Healthcare in Tennessee. Those same stress hormones can also cause muscle tension, which may lead to cramping.

Always call your doctor if you experience spotting, bleeding, or cramping during pregnancy—whether you think the symptom could be caused by stress or not.

There’s a variety of potential causes of spotting and bleeding—sometimes it means there’s a problem and sometimes it doesn’t. Your doctor can help decide whether or not you’ll need to be examined.

“It's important to distinguish stress-induced cramps from other potential causes of cramps in pregnancy, like Braxton Hicks contractions, round ligament pain, or digestive issues,” says Scruggs.

Can Stress Affect Your Baby?

Many people worry about the effect of stress on the baby.

“We increasingly understand that stressors in pregnancy have the potential to impact the pregnancy outcome,” Netherton explains.

Stress has been linked to a higher risk of preterm delivery or low birth weight for the baby, she says.

A meta-analysis of 49 studies suggests that people who experienced moderate to extreme stress during pregnancy were 1.42 times more likely to give birth preterm (before 37 weeks). They were also more likely to give birth to babies with low birth weight (less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces).

Babies born preterm or with low birth weight are more likely to need medical care, have health problems, or developmental delays or disabilities, according to the March of Dimes.

There’s also research being conducted to explore whether or not unborn babies can be affected by intergenerational trauma. That is, whether or not a parent’s trauma could cause actual changes in the child’s DNA and potentially affect their health.

5 Ways to Manage Stress During Pregnancy

ways to manage stress during pregnancy

It's not all bad news! There are lots of different ways you can manage stress during pregnancy, and most are pretty simple. 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. Get 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.

Here are some things to try if you’re having pregnancy sleep problems:

  • Use a pregnancy pillow
  • Try listening to meditative music
  • Stop drinking water or other beverages an hour before bedtime
  • Avoid using screens right before falling asleep

Pregnancy insomnia is a real thing, and many people struggle greatly with getting enough sleep during pregnancy, even when they’re not disrupted by other factors (like having to get up to pee, or feeling uncomfortable in the third trimester).

If you're unable to sleep night after night, speak to your doctor to see if they can make recommendations to help.

2. Eat a Healthy Diet and Drink Plenty of Water

Other good strategies for managing stress during pregnancy include ensuring that you’re eating well and drinking plenty of water.

Eating healthy foods during pregnancy can help you keep your energy level up, which can help you more easily handle any stressors that come your way.

  • Avoid junk/processed food. These can increase the likelihood of excessive weight gain during pregnancy and gestational diabetes.
  • Stay hydrated. It's easy to become dehydrated during pregnancy, so it becomes even more important to get those 8 glasses of water each day.
  • Eat protein. It’s crucial for your increased blood supply, and will help you feel fuller, longer as well.

3. Find an Exercise Routine You’ll Enjoy Doing

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, and you exercised regularly before pregnancy, 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, Focus on Self-Care

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.

Now may not be the time to take on an intense project at work, or lead your older child’s Parent Teacher Organization. Ask for help when you can, and do your best to say no to tasks that aren’t important or can wait.

5. Talk to Someone You Trust

Sometimes, venting to someone about how we’re feeling can help us feel better. If it’s just the frustrations of daily life you need to get off your chest, a conversation with a friend or loved one might help.

So ask a friend for a coffee date, or schedule a pedicure with your mom or a favorite aunt. Let them in on what you’re going through, and let them lend you some much-needed support. Talking about your emotions during pregnancy can be an effective stress-reliever.

But if you’re feeling excessively burdened, or like you’re losing interest in everyday activities, you might benefit from speaking with a therapist. At PSIDirectory.com, you can find a mental health professional with experience seeing pregnant and postpartum people. Or explore an online option like BetterHelp if you aren’t able to work a face-to-face appointment into your busy life.

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.”

Always talk with your doctor before making any changes to the medicine you’re taking. 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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