Why reducing stress in pregnancy is vital

Childcare consultant Angela Spencer has some advice on the importance of reducing stress during pregnancy, including work-based stress.

Pregnant woman sitting on a sofa looking stressed and upset


Stress seems to have been the buzz word governing our day to day lives for at least the last decade, but it has taken on a whole new meaning in 2020. However, I am still shocked that mums-to-be have no idea that stress is something they NEED to know about.

Reducing stress during pregnancy is something I have been highlighting for many years now because of the increased risks it brings to both your pregnancy but also the wellbeing and future development of your baby, and then COVID-19 hit. Stress during pregnancy has been taken to whole new level; being told we are vulnerable and must isolate – the exact opposite of what a new mum-to-be needs, being faced with labour and sometimes even birth without our partner and then to face being a new mum isolated from friends and family.

Negative stress

Some stress is considered positive, such as getting a new job, but stress can become negative when it is prolonged and consistent, such as work stress or a turbulent relationship or an unprecedented pandemic and big distressing personal events increase the effects even more. With the stressful lives we lead before we even become pregnant, is it any wonder the whole conception, pregnancy and birth journey has become so negative and stressful?

Professor James Boardman at the University of Edinburgh has recently published research which links higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in mothers with structural changes in the amygdala – the small almond-shaped cluster of neurons located in each side of the brain – of newly born babies. Cortisol also plays a role in foetal growth.

“This research highlights how important it is to support women’s mental health during pregnancy to ensure their needs are met and their babies have the best start in life,” says Sarah Brown at children charity Theirworld, which funded the study.

Work-based stress

This is not the only research, though, which makes it so frustrating that it is still a taboo subject that no one discusses.

A study by obstetricians at Humboldt University in Berlin found that emotional wellbeing at work can have a more important role in increasing the risk of a premature birth than activities such as lifting and carrying things.

Women who are unhappy at work are almost three times more likely to give birth prematurely. So why is virtually no one talking about this? If you wait to talk about it at your first midwife appointment, which is usually around 12/13 weeks into the pregnancy then it’s too late for the first trimester.

Let’s talk about the trimesters for a moment as they are each important in their own right, especially when it comes to the risks from stress.

First trimester

You can be almost half way through the first trimester when the ‘Thin Blue Line’ appears on the pregnancy test and yet you could already be having a huge impact on your baby’s wellbeing. Managing your stress in the first trimester is vital and so is getting enough sleep. One way to aid this is to introduce an evening relaxation routine. Another tip is to tell your employer if you are facing anything stressful at work so they can mitigate this.  You could point out the research too.

Stress isn’t just caused by your workload. It is also important to ensure that you are able to stay hydrated sufficiently, eat regularly and take breaks, especially if you are suffering with something like hyperemesis gravidarum (severe morning sickness). Take the time to discuss your workload with your manager and any projects they may wish you to finish and whether they will want you to train a replacement – all can add to your stress levels – and don’t forget to ensure that home time is just that! Now more than ever, leave work at work.

Second trimester

By the second trimester your baby’s sensory journey is coming on in leaps and bounds and, although the first signs of your baby’s senses developing begin around nine weeks in it isn’t until around 24 weeks that they can consciously hear you and begin to recognise your voice and familiar tones and patterns. This is a good time to indulge in a complete relaxation routine with music, essential oils and meditation. However, it also means that your baby can hear and feel the negative emotions or environment you may find yourself in and can be further affected by the cortisol your body produces when you are under stress. It is a great time to start practising my ‘Feet Up For 30’ (30 minutes every day) battle cry!

It is also a key time for most women to be able to feel their baby moving and therefore be reassured the pregnancy is progressing positively. The old ‘Count the Kicks’ programme is no longer recommended. Instead the NHS recommends your recognise your baby’s pattern of movement and rest. I call this their ‘Routine in the Womb’ as I want to help mums think not just about their own routine of rest and relaxation but the baby’s too!

Third trimester

As you move through the third and final trimester it becomes even more important to reduce the effects of stress and to be in a positive environment, both for you and for your baby’s developing brain and subsequent mental health well being. I know that you want to maximise the time you have on maternity leave after your baby arrives, but please do think long and hard about whether you, your pregnancy and your baby’s well being and development may be at risk from the added stress of working very close to your due date. I recommend stopping work, if possible, six weeks before the due date. There’s a reason it’s called the nesting phase and resting and nesting rather than working can reduce the risks of a premature or negative birth experience.

*Angela Spencer is a pregnancy and baby wellness expert, childcare consultant and founder of Babyopathy which promotes stress-free pregnancy. She has owned and operated children’s nurseries for over 25 years – finally selling them in 2018. Angela was named in the Top 10 most influential people in Childcare by Nursery Management Today magazine in 2017. Babyopathy – Relaxed Mum, Contented Baby is published in May 2019 by Panoma Press and is available from Amazon and www.babyopathy.com. The book was awarded the Best Family and Parenting Book 2019 and Angela is also winner of the 2019 Parenting Practitioner award in the Janey Loves Awards.

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