Stress in pregnancy can impact your unborn baby by the age of two, with an increase in emotional and behavioural problems, according to new studies. The researchers from the Universities of Cambridge, Birmingham, New York and Leiden found that your emotional struggles while pregnant can predict your toddler’s emotions and behaviour. What is more telling, is that this is not just in relation to the mother who is growing the baby, but the father-to-be’s wellbeing as well.
This is the first study of its kind to look at the influence of both parents’ emotional wellbeing before and after birth, on their baby at 14 and 24 months of age. The findings, which included parents from England, America and the Netherlands, highlight that it is vital to provide emotional support and anti-stress techniques before, during and after pregnancy.
The study, published recently in Development & Psychology, found that the mental and emotional wellbeing of first-time moms and dads directly impacted the behaviour of their toddler children by the time they were two. Those who had undue stress and anxiety during pregnancy were more likely to have toddlers displaying behavioural and emotional problems such as tantrums, being overly tearful, scaring easily, or being clingy.
Professor Claire Hughes from Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research explains: “For too long, the experiences of first-time dads have been side-lined or treated in isolation from that of moms. This needs to change because difficulties in children’s early relationships with both mothers and fathers can have long-term effects.”
This is not the first time that studies have looked at the impact of maternal stress on the child. However, this is the first tracking wellbeing in both partners and over an extended period.
Hughes adds: “Our findings highlight the need for earlier and more effective support for couples to prepare them better for the transition to parenthood.” The study also highlights the need to look beyond an individual’s emotional stress and look as well at the impact on the new parents’ relationship as a couple.
Of course, genetics can play a role, but co-author, Dr Rory Devine, a developmental psychologist at the University of Birmingham adds that, “Our data demonstrates that mental health problems during pregnancy have a unique impact on children’s behaviour problems.” The solution, the researchers advise, is for new parents to communicate and be open and honest with each other. This can better prepare them for the major changes that comes with the transition from being a couple to a family.
Calming techniques for pregnancy:
The Centre of Perinatal Excellence has found that both pregnant women and their partners can benefit from utilising relaxation techniques to help reduce stress and anxiety during pregnancy.
Guided muscle relaxation
By tensing and relaxing specific muscle groups in your body, you can release muscle tension caused by stress.
What to do:
- Get into a comfortable position.
- If necessary, place pillows to support your joints and have your arms and legs comfortably flexed.
- Breathe in and slowly release.
- Focus on the muscles in your forehead. Contract them as if frowning. Release.
- Squeeze your eyes shut, release and keep them gently closed.
- Clench and release your jaw.
- Pull your shoulders up towards your ears as high as you can, slowly release.
- Make fists and straighten your arms, locking your elbows. Slowly release.
- Breath in deeply expanding your chest as wide as you can. Slowly breathe out and relax.
- Clench your stomach muscles (as much as you can), and slowly relax.
- Pull up and tighten your butt cheeks. Release.
- Tighten your thighs, lock your knees, and point your toes until you feel a stretch in your calves. Slowly relax and release.
- Tighten all your muscles at the same time. Release.
- Breathe in and out slowly and deeply.
- Stay in this relaxed mode for a few minutes, allowing all the stress of your day fade away.
Controlled deep breathing can help lower your blood pressure, your stress levels and help promote a state of calm.
What to do:
- Get into a comfortable position, either sitting or lying on your side.
- Focus your attention on your breathing, keeping it slow and easy.
- Breath in and out deeply, letting go of all your stress and frustrations as you breathe out.
Move your focus
Closing your eyes and imagining you are in a safe, calm and relaxing environment can help ease your current stressors.
What to do:
- Simply get comfortable, in a chair or on your bed.
- Close your eyes and focus on your breathing, feeling your chest rise and fall with each breath you take.
- Imagine your favourite place – perhaps it is on the beach, or lying in a field of grass, or staring at a beautiful sunset. Bring that memory to mind and focus on the sounds, colours, smells and textures.
Enjoy the stillness of your place, allowing it to envelop you, leaving you with a sense of peace.
Five quick steps to de stress:
- Focus on your baby.
- Talk about your anxiety or stressors. You may find your partner shares these too.
- Eat well, stay hydrated and rest well.
- Go for a walk or do some gentle exercise.
- Read up and prepare for birth and what to expect afterwards. Knowledge is power. Being familiar with what is going to happen and what you can anticipate will help set your (and your partner’s) mind at rest.
Kim Bell is a wife, mother of two teenagers and a lover of research and the way words flow and meld together. She has been in the media industry for over 20 years, and yet still learns more about life from her children everyday. You can learn more about Kim Bell here.