How does stress affect pregnancy? Can stress cause miscarriage?

Pregnant Woman

For many people, stress during pregnancy is simply unavoidable. This is completely natural. After all:

This is another life which you are responsible for. Plus, stress is a normal response to any serious change in someone's personal circumstances...

And pregnancy certainly fits the bill there.

But how does stress affect pregnancy?

In this article, we'll find out...

What is stress?

Stress is your body's natural reaction at times when you perceive yourself to be in danger. It sometimes goes by the name of the “fight or flight” response.

The stress response involves the production of certain hormones which begin to elevate your heart rate, blood pressure and reaction times.

This can give you the little added extra boost you need to get away from that tiger, react fast enough to avoid that other car – or escape unscathed from untold other situations.

However, the presence of these hormones for a prolonged period – if you are suffering from chronic stress, for example – can have untoward effects on your body.

It's not healthy to live in a heightened state like this for a long period. Which is why, when you are suffering from stress, you can suffer all kinds of physical health problems in addition to mental health ones.

Pregnant woman holding her belly

Stress during pregnancy – does it harm the baby?

The effects of short-term stress during pregnancy

The presence of these stress hormones for a short period does not seem to have any negative effects on a baby or foetus's development.

There was a major study conducted by a team in Zurich which showed that even during sharp periods of acute stress, as long as they are short in duration, the baby is protected.

This was indicated by the fact that there were no stress hormones in the amniotic fluid of those pregnant women who were tested.

The effects of longer-term stress in pregnancy

However, if stress hormones are present in the longer-term, actual effects are possible. These can include:

  • Affect on foetal growth: if enough stress hormone is present in the amniotic fluid and foetal metabolism, animal studies suggest that the development of the unborn child can actually be boosted. This can increase the chances of survival of premature birth. However, this can be at the cost of improper growth of the internal organs.
  • Increased chance of baby developing illnesses in later life: some studies have shown that if expectant mothers experience stress for an extended time, there is an increased risk of the child developing either physical or mental illnesses and behavioural problems in later life. The exact reason for this isn't known. But it may be linked to the presence of the same stress hormone cortisol during development.
  • Increased chance of premature birth: also known as preterm delivery, the chance of premature birth can be associated with exposure to stress during pregnancy.

How does stress affect pregnancy in the first trimester?

Interactions between stress and pregnancy currently haven't properly been studied until week 17, well into the second trimester.

The only general observation which can be made is that if you are pregnant, you deserve to get proper support at what is, after all, a potentially stressful time.

Feeling stressed is, again, both normal and common during pregnancy. Even if you are experiencing a “healthy” amount of stress though, you might want to consider taking steps to reduce it.

At the very least, this should cut down on the headaches, changes in appetite and difficulty sleeping which you might be experiencing.

These are common side-effects of stress in addition to sometimes being side-effects of pregnancy.

How does stress affect pregnancy in the second trimester?

The journal Clinical Endocrinology recently published a study which showed that as early as 17 weeks into a pregnancy, a pregnant woman's stress levels can potentially start to affect the baby's development.

This follows a number of other studies – in both animals and people – which show high-stress levels for mum are not healthy for baby.

The exact mechanisms through which this happens are not yet clearly understood.

How does stress affect pregnancy in the third trimester?

As it's after 17 weeks into a pregnancy, it's thought that stress can have similar effects on pregnancy during both the second and third trimester if it occurs for an extended time.

Can stress cause miscarriage?

It is currently thought that stress is not a direct cause of miscarriage.

Around 10-20% of pregnancies result in a miscarriage (possibly more because many miscarriages actually occur before the pregnancy is identified) for many different reasons – even in cases where every indication shows that the mother did absolutely everything right.

With the usual proviso that stress is unhealthy and you should try to take whatever steps you need to reduce it, there is usually said to be no link between stress and miscarriages.

Pregnant Woman Lying on Bed

Reducing stress in pregnancy

During pregnancy, it's smart to look after your mental as well as your physical health.

By taking care of your own health and happiness, you'll find it easier to cope with stress when it does appear. Thus, negating its effect on you and your baby.

You might want to try:

  • Taking more time to yourself – maybe try reading a book, watching TV or enjoying your regular hobbies
  • Taking things more slowly and resting often
  • Eating a nutritionally-balanced diet
  • Partaking in regular exercise (of a kind that's suitable for pregnancy)
  • Consider taking up yoga or gentle tai chi
  • Try meditation, either in class or through one of the many apps or devices which are available – there is a huge range of stress relief products on the market these days
  • Paying attention to what causes you stress and making a note to try and avoid it if possible
  • Meet with people whose company you find relaxing
  • When people offer to help you, consider saying “yes”
  • When you need help, ask for it!

As with all things related to pregnancy, it's worth discussing stress and pregnancy with your doctor or any other medical professional who is your regular point of contact.

They should be able to suggest ways you can help yourself to reduce stress during pregnancy. Even if it's just for your own comfort and wellbeing.

Henry Warren I am a professional writer and health & wellness enthusiast.