By Nadia Mohamedi, OTIS Teratogen Information Specialist
If “holiday” means an exemption from work, the holiday season should be a time of relaxation and comfort. For many of us, however, the holiday season can be an overwhelming blur of bright lights, packed malls, uncomfortable work parties, financial heartache and family drama. Add some crazy pregnancy hormones and fatigue in the mix and the holiday season no longer seems like a winter wonderland. As my then pregnant sister said one Christmas, “My fat body may make me look like Santa but I feel more like the Grinch with anxiety problems.” Because, at that point I was not a pregnancy health counselor and not equipped with pregnancy information to help my sister, I hope to share what I know now and encourage all soon-to-be or repeat mamas to have a real holiday this year for both their well-being and that of their babies.
Stress is the body’s way of reacting to something that is unknown, disturbing or dangerous, also called a “stressor”. For example, if you were just waltzing around walking in the woods and all of a sudden saw a big black bear, your body would produce hormones like cortisone or adrenaline that gets your heart rate up and your legs running…fast. Once you are in a safe place, these levels of hormones would go down and you would start to relax. This kind of stress is protective – it keeps us safe, energized and even improves our immune system and memory.
However, repeated stress or stress that remains long after the “stressor” goes away or stress that is extreme can contribute serious damage to your own health. Chronic stress can lead to hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, lower immune function and memory problems. Extreme stress can also lead to a worsening of existing health conditions – like throwing a diabetic’s glucose levels out of control.
In general during pregnancy, the healthier the mom is, the better chance she has of having a healthy baby. Increased stress during pregnancy can affect the pregnancy outcome in many different ways:
• As mentioned above, stress can worsen existing conditions like diabetes. Poorly controlled diabetes in pregnancy is associated with increased risk for birth defects, preterm delivery (delivering before 37 weeks), and a cesarean birth. Stress can also increase blood pressure, which can lead to pregnancy-induced hypertension.
• Stress can cause emotional problems like feelings of anxiety, sadness and irritability. Women who have a mental illness in pregnancy are twice as likely to develop post-partum depression, which can negatively affect maternal bonding and, consequently, the baby’s development and behavior.
• Some women alleviate stress by eating poorly, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol or using illicit drugs. Stress can cause women to forget to take their prenatal vitamins or prescribed medication. These behaviors can be extremely detrimental for a developing baby such as causing poor fetal growth, birth defects preterm delivery, or neonatal withdrawal.
Measuring the effects of stress itself on a pregnancy is difficult. Numerous studies have been done to find out if increased stress alone can cause adverse pregnancy outcomes. The studies, so far, have shown that it is unlikely that stress alone can cause an increased risk for birth defects. However, some studies have shown that severe stress alone is associated with an increased risk for preterm delivery and low birth weight. Some studies have not shown this effect. In clinical practice, many doctors prescribe bed rest, which can vary from taking it easy around the house to total bed confinement, for pregnant mothers who are at risk for having an early delivery or other complications.
If you’re still reading this, you might be a little stressed out right now. Take a deep breath… phew! I hope to increase awareness about how important it is to stay healthy and relaxed this holiday season, not to contribute to anxiety. If you are pregnant and are feeling the nerves rise, take a break to find out what might help you keep them down. For once, pass on heading the next big project at work. Master that downward-facing dog. Sip some hot cocoa while you mouse-click your way through all your holiday shopping. That party tonight where 50 strangers will be rubbing your belly? Skip it. Take advantage of all the “holiday spirit” enthusiasts by making them listen to you vent for hours. Seek professional help as soon as you think you might need it. If you know someone who is pregnant, ask her what she wants this holiday – like a pregnancy massage or a big pillow. Don’t assume she only wants presents for the future baby. And lastly, if every year you attend a huge dinner hosted by the fabulous Aunt Linda, who is pregnant this year, offer to have it at your place instead. It can be hard to break tradition, but remember, the holiday season happens every year. This year, focus on the most important present you can give – the brightest future possible for you (or your pregnant friend) and the newest addition to the family. Happy Holidays!
We all come home, or ought to come home, for a short holiday – the longer, the better – from the great boarding school where we are forever working at our arithmetical slates, to take, and give a rest. – Charles Dickens
*Nadia Mohamedi is a teratogen information specialist and also serves as a research assistant/interviewer for OTIS studies in San Diego, CA. She holds a BA in neurobiology and a minor in psychology from Harvard College. In addition to her work with OTIS, Nadia has worked for the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Program at McLean Hospital as well as served as a teacher’s assistant at a school for children with disabilities in Lima, Peru.
OTIS is a North American non-profit dedicated to providing accurate evidence-based information about exposures during pregnancy and lactation. Questions or concerns about alcohol during pregnancy or breastfeeding can be directed to OTIS counselors at (866) 626-OTIS (6847) or online at OTISPregnancy.org.*
*Image provided by Bamboobies, maker of the Butterfly Wrap.*