Stress and Your Unborn Child: Lessons from the Womb

Expectant mothers know that their future will include many lessons. Sometimes they will take on the role of student, but mostly, they will be the one who teaches their child valuable survival lessons. Many parents don’t realize the important lessons that their baby is learning early on from the mother’s environment.

Every pregnancy should be as natural and healthy as possible. One major and increasing contributing factor to unhealthy pregnancies is chronic emotional stress. By 17 weeks, a fat called myelin wraps around the baby’s spinal cord to assist in carrying messages from the brain through the nerves. Even at this early stage of life babies can feel the effects of their mother’s emotional stress.

When encountering stressful situations, the body releases cortisol and adrenaline to stimulate our fight or flight response in the event of danger. During pregnancy, the baby receives both the mother’s cortisol and adrenaline, causing the fetal heart rate to increase and sending the message to the baby that the outside world is unsafe. One study that tested cortisol levels in amniotic fluid found that infants who were exposed to higher levels of cortisol in utero showed higher pre-stress cortisol values and blunted response to stress exposure. This means that babies exposed to higher amounts of stress hormones have been taught to feel as though they are in constant danger. Pregnant mothers are essentially teaching their unborn child about their future environment inside the womb. Infants who have higher than usual exposure to cortisol may be more likely to be fussy, hard to soothe or become a more temperamental child. Unfortunately, it is often these children who will be misdiagnosed and thus, may be prescribed unnecessary medication.

Parents should be aware that a developing baby is learning from the moment of conception and well into birth and beyond. An unborn child is not only learning how to survive from the mother’s thoughts and feelings, but her stress response can have a significant impact on fetal brain development and can even alter the birth outcome.

Keep in mind, however, that stress can come in more than one form and expectant mothers should monitor all stress for the best chances at a healthy pregnancy. You can read more about the different stressors here.

Some suggestions for minimizing stress during pregnancy and strengthening your threshold to stress are:

Nourishment – Eating well can do wonders for your mood and it is essential to a healthy pregnancy. For instance, during a functional medicine evaluation, I commonly see patients who suffer from hyperemesis. These mothers may benefit from more vitamin B-6 in their diet. You can read my post here on Essential Nutrients and speak with Dr. Kat or our functional nutritionist about what nutrients you may need to increase while pregnant.


Bounce That Bump – We all know that being active is part of a healthy lifestyle; pregnant or not. And, that a good workout can reduce stress and clear the mind. But, did you know that regular movement aids in the development of the baby’s vestibular system? You are teaching your child’s future balance system what to expect as early as 10 weeks post conception. But the benefits of exercising while pregnant don’t stop in the first trimester. In the second trimester, regular activity can help maintain a healthy pregnancy. And, if you were too tired or not feeling well in the beginning, most women will start to feel better after 12 weeks and can start adding more activity. During the third trimester, being active can help maintain blood sugar levels. Not to mention that being active throughout pregnancy will build endurance in preparation for labor.


Chiropractic Care – It is imperative to get regular adjustments by a Webster certified chiropractor during pregnancy. When subluxations are removed with adjustments, chiropractic care can help balance the impact of the stress response.  Among the many benefits to seeing a chiropractor throughout your pregnancy; core score, neural efficiency, and heart rate variability tests are performed in-office and can help provide additional information on your body’s threshold to external stressors.

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Reduce Toxins: Toxic Chemicals and Toxic Thoughts – Toxic household cleaners, beauty and personal care products, even your favorite scented candle or laundry detergent. These days, we are not only swimming in chemicals, but we are eating them too. Many processed foods contain some scary ingredients that not only affect you but your unborn baby as well. Aim for an organic, whole foods diet and eat as many veggies as possible. Reducing white flour, white potatoes, and all refined sugar will also help.

Positive thoughts also have a huge impact on the mind. Be sure to wash away any negative thoughts that you do not need. The next two suggestions can help provide peace of mind.

Talk about it– Talking, singing or reading to your baby will help both the mother and baby reduce stress. At around 22 weeks gestation your baby can hear sounds. Yet another lesson that he or she will learn from the womb is to recognize the sound of mom’s voice. It’s also great to talk to another person about what you’re feeling too. Therapy or even catching up with a friend can help clear the mind.


Meditation or Prayer – Meditating or praying has been shown to lower levels of cortisol. Here is an easy meditation that you can practice for a few minutes a day.

  1. Sit in a quiet place with your eyes closed.
  2. Begin to breathe in deeply and slowly through your nose, keeping your shoulders relaxed.
  3. Focus on your breath, then repeat a word or phrase you find calming, over and over. Hold this stillness as long as you feel comfortable.

If you have a hard time meditating, natural pregnancy affirmation cards are great too!

As we know, our brain and spinal cord is the master conductor. It helps the mother’s body to carry, nourish, and grow the baby. It helps a developing baby survive inside the womb and prepare for life on the outside. But, the power of the brain does not stop there. Considering how human life begins, one cell splitting into more cells, the brain and spinal cord are developed, sending buds that soon become a heart, nerves, limbs, fingers, toes, lungs, and so on. Even after a baby is born, the nervous system continues to control and coordinate the function of every cell, tissue, organ and system in the body for life.

Nourish the power that creates the body; it makes no mistakes.

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