Joyous Mom, Joyous Baby
There are countless guides to pregnancy that offer expectant moms very similar, if not identical, suggestions, and for good reason: the tried-and-true guidelines concerning nutritious eating, healthy habits, regular exercise, and social and emotional support are now verities because they are firmly grounded in medical science, experience, and common sense. Regular prenatal visits, of course, are the best way for women to monitor their own health and the progress of their pregnancy. Health professionals can also recommend sources of useful information and other types of resources.
In recent years, relaxation resources available to expectant mothers have steadily expanded and now include yoga, meditation, massage, and other techniques. Dietary advice is better and more detailed than ever, including information on vitamins and caffeine. The evidence that shows that smoking, alcohol, and addictive drugs can seriously harm your baby is more convincing than ever. Doctors today also have a better idea of which prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines might pose dangers to a developing fetus (a growing concern, considering that a survey of 14,000 pregnant women in 22 countries found that 86% of these women took medication during pregnancy, with an average woman taking 2.9 medications).
Stress, Blues, and Impact on Moms
Scientists today are also gaining insights into the impact of stress on pregnancy. The results confirm the commonsense hunch that women under terrible stress give birth to babies who are likely to suffer some effects of this stress. The results are not so clear when it comes to pregnant women under moderate stress, which includes a great many expectant mothers. And do happier moms have happier babies? That’s actually the trickiest question of all to answer, or to even experimentally evaluate. One thing that can safely be said, however, is that the happier the mom—well, the happier the mom! And that, everyone can agree, is a good thing in itself, and can only help a mother better cope with pregnancy, birth, and the arrival of her baby.
Not everything goes as smoothly or as happily as every mom would like, of course. Roughly half of all new mothers experience some degree of “postpartum blues” a few days after birth. A smaller percentage, between 10-15%, go on to experience more serious depression several weeks after birth. The most commonly cited symptoms include anxiety, sleep disturbances, concern for the baby, depression, irritability, and hostility. Perhaps not surprisingly, studies have shown that mothers suffering from depression also seem to have more pessimistic opinions about their babies’ dispositions.
Why does this happen? One formerly popular interpretation was that mothers became depressed following birth due to their “sense of loss” at no longer being pregnant. As Sarah Blaffer Hrdy observes, however, “few contemporary psychiatrists, and even fewer mothers, are persuaded that women are anything other than relieved when pregnancy ends.”
What seems more certain is that there are a number of risk factors that seem to correlate with postpartum depression, including a history of depression, high levels of stress and anxiety, and little or no social support. A mother’s depression doesn’t just affect her, of course. There is growing research evidence, according to researcher Jacqueline McGrath and colleagues, that “postpartum depression has the potential for long-lasting effects for both the mother and the infant.”
Impact of Stress on Baby
But just how much stress is too much? First of all, stress is not definable as just “one” thing, and it isn’t even always a bad thing. There is actually positive stress that is a part of life’s daily challenges. For a developing infant, this could involve dealing with routine frustration and mastering separation. Being able to manage this type of stress is important for growth and development. There is negative, but tolerable stress, which can have an adverse impact over the long run. What usually makes stress tolerable for babies and children is the support of caregivers. But there is also very serious and chronic stress. In the absence of strong caregiver support, this sort of “toxic” stress can take a terrible toll on a child.
One of the ways that stress is mediated in the body is through the hormone cortisol, which is secreted by adrenal glands in response to physical and emotional stress or high states of arousal. Studies have shown that a rise in cortisol levels can be adaptive—up to a point. If cortisol levels are too high or elevated for too long, “there appear to be negative effects on health, behavior, and learning and memory processes,” according to researchers Laura Thompson and Wenda Trevathan.
Most research on the impact of elevated cortisol has been done on adult populations. A growing number of studies, however, are trying to correlate stress in pregnant women with cortisol levels in their babies. Other studies track the effects of high cortisol levels in infants and children when they are temporarily separated from the mother. Still other studies explore how cortisol levels affect learning and memory in infants.
Studies such as these have shown that elevated cortisol levels can have adverse effects, but they have also shown that the support of a caregiver can often mitigate this impact. The study of stress and its impact is an important and promising area of research, but the complete picture of how stress affects an expectant mother, developing fetus, or growing baby is complex and subject to a whole range of social, environmental, and genetic factors.
Meanwhile, dwelling on stress can, well, add to stress! Instead, expectant moms have plenty of reasons to focus on activities and attitudes that celebrate the joyous experience of motherhood and the bonds of love between parents and children. It is often easier, in experimental terms, for researchers to isolate the impact of the negative. But research into the impact of stress doesn’t have to translate into anxiety. Increasingly, there are researchers who are exploring the many ways that positive experiences, wellness, safe and secure environments help babies grow into strong, sensitive and resilient individuals. Mothers will always play a pivotal role in enhancing the lives of their children, and deeper insights will help mothers even more fully embrace these opportunities.
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