The Effects of Stress on Preterm Birth

Your Baby
Weeks 9 to 13

At 12 weeks your baby is about 4 inches long and weighs less than 1 ounce. Her features are becoming more clearly defined. Her fingers and toes are fully formed and nail beds are forming. Some of her organs are actually working. Her bones are forming so she needs plenty of calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D. She has all 20 of her baby teeth and her vocal cords have formed. Her taste buds begin to develop. Her rooting reflex is present. She can suck her thumb and swallow amniotic fluid, which she passes into the bag of waters as urine.

Her heart is beating between 110 and 160 times a minute, and her chest rises and falls as she begins to practice her breathing. Near your 12-week prenatal care visit, you should be able to hear her heart beat with a special machine called a Doppler.

Your baby is moving inside your uterus, but you probably won’t feel her for another month or two.

Fetus at 12 weeks with placenta

Fetus at 12 weeks with placenta

Studies have shown a strong link among stress, preterm birth, and low birth weight. Stress releases hormones that cause our hearts to beat faster and our blood pressure to increase. Continuous stress, which includes situations like morning traffic jams or waiting in lines every time we go shopping, can add up. Too much stress can lead to uterine contractions.

Both physical stress (activity) and mental stress can result in an increased production of certain hormones.These hormones increase your blood pressure and heart rate and reduce the flow of blood to your uterus and the placenta. When the blood flow to the placenta is reduced, it decreases the amount of oxygen and food available for your baby. Without enough oxygen and food, your baby can develop more slowly than normal.

Identifying Stress and Its Effects

It’s possible for everything in our lives to contribute to our total level of stress. We know that problems in life such as financial problems, a death in thefamily, or being fired from work cause stress. But, even positive events likegraduating from school, getting married, or becoming pregnant add stress. Change can also cause stress. Change, whether good or bad, forces our bodies to adapt. Too much change can use up our ability to adapt, causing symptoms of physical and mental stress.

Outward signs of stress include:
~ nervous habits, such as biting your nails, grinding your teeth, twirling your hair
~ mood changes, such as depression, hostility, impatience, worry
~ changes in behavior, such as getting upset, not being able to sleep, headaches, problems with digestion, skin outbreaks

During pregnancy these problems can be made worse because they are added to the stress of pregnancy. You must also cope with changes in your body, new roles for you and your partner, your personal time, and more financial responsibilities. Therefore, pregnancy is an important time to identify the stresses in your life and to find ways to reduce them or cope with them better.

Stress at Work

Unless your work is very stressful, you may be able to keep working during your pregnancy by pacing your work, taking several rest breaks, and practicing ways to reduce and handle stress. Keep in mind that pregnancy is not a time to set sales records or to go for a big promotion. It’s a time to pamper yourself, get plenty of rest, and eat well. If you work outside the home, make an extra effort to rest when you can and pay special attention to any warning signs from your body.


Today, pregnant mothers often push themselves to work all day, run their household, and take care of their family. No one expects this of you, especially your family and your unborn baby. Try not to be “supermom.” Take some time for yourself. Get plenty of rest. Ask your partner to help with the household chores or to take the children out while you rest or take a nap.

Ways to Reduce Stress

Pregnant woman resting in hammock.Deep breathing and focusing are often taught to mothers preparing for childbirth. One of the first things you learn when preparing for childbirth is how to breathe: slowly and deeply with cleansing breaths. This keeps your heart rate down and gives you a sense of control and well-being.

Next, you learn how to focus on your contractions during childbirth. In everyday life you can learn to focus on whatever stress you are dealing with. By calmly focusing your attention on the problem at hand, you can learn to reduce the amount of stress you feel. Learning ways to reduce stress can help you deal with daily frustrations in more efficient and healthier ways.

Exercise. Exercise can improve your physical and mental well-being, including digestion and sleep habits. However, during pregnancy, the type and intensity of exercise can affect your risk for preterm birth. An ideal exercise during pregnancy is yoga. Yoga can be very relaxing if you have a lot of stress in your life. Yoga improves your flexibility and body tone. Ask your doctor if yoga is okay for you or if some other exercise is better.

Massage. A massage can ease tense muscles which makes your body feel more relaxed and gives you a calmer outlook. Having a massage also provides a quiet time to clear your mind, further reducing stress.

Meditation. This form of relaxation reduces stress by clearing the mind of thoughts that bother you. Meditation can be practiced in any quiet place. Meditation can reduce tension and physical stress. Also, it can help you clear and focus your mind, creating a calmer overall sense of being.

Nutrition. A healthy diet makes it easier for your body to cope with life’s stresses. Drinking too much coffee or using alcohol and cigarettes to relieve stress is unhealthy for you and your baby. They can cause nutritional imbalances and changes in behavior. After awhile, they can increase the amount of stress you feel and reduce your ability to cope.

Relaxation. It’s a good idea to take a few minutes every evening to unwind from the day’s events. Relaxation reduces the tension in your muscles and makes you feel more comfortable. Here are some ways to relax:
~ Lie down with your legs resting on pillows, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing.
~ Dim the lights or use candles.
~ Sit outside and sip herbal tea.
~ Put on your most comfortable clothes, then listen to your favorite music or read a book.

Time management. Not having enough time to get things done can lead to stress. Managing time effectively is a great stress reducer. Get organized. Simplify tasks at home and at work. Ask your partner, friends, or other family members to help out. Make a list of what you have to do, then do the important items first.

To Learn More about Preventing Preterm Birth
To Learn More about Caring for Your Newborn

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