How can I juggle work and parenthood? Am I eating the right foods? What happens if I go into labor early? With all of these questions — and more — swirling around in your head, it’s no wonder pregnancy is a stressful time.

Some stress during pregnancy is normal, but chronic stress may put you and your baby at risk.

Stress and its physical effects

Stress triggers the “fight or flight” response that causes your heart to pump faster and release cortisol, as well as other stress-related hormones.

If you are able to control your stress, your body will balance itself. But if stress becomes constant and chronic, the body’s inflammatory response can lead to poorer pregnancy health, preterm labor, and even developmental problems in expectant mothers and their babies.

Short-term, a mother’s stress can lead to sleep problems, headaches, loss of appetite or overeating, or other health-related issues like high blood pressure. These in turn can lead to complications in the baby, including low birth-weight and eventual behavioral issues due to premature development.

Stress can also lead to changes in the mother’s hormone levels. The fetus reacts by adapting to this high-stress environment or suffers from its effects. Anxiety, for instance, can lead to increased levels of chemicals like epinephrine and norepinephrine, which reduce oxygen to the uterus.

Behaviors and bonding

Recent studies have shown a link between a mother’s stress during pregnancy and a baby’s temperament. Researchers have found that mothers who experienced high stress and thus high cortisol levels during pregnancy had babies that exhibited a cortisol spike during an early blood draw. These infants also calmed down much less readily than their counterparts.

If stress continues, a mother may have difficulty bonding with her baby post-delivery. High cortisol levels during pregnancy can be counteracted to some extent by warm parenting, but ongoing stress may compound problems with bonding.

Stress management

Talking to your doctor is one way to discuss your concerns with stress and find a solution that works best for you. Together you can assess what methods of reducing stress may be most beneficial, from yoga to prenatal therapy.

Reduce stress by taking care of yourself, as pregnancy can be a stressful time. Don’t cut corners when it comes to getting proper meals and adequate sleep. When you are feeling stressed, acknowledging it and slowing down are important.

Most of all, don’t forget to relax! A simple bubble bath or a good book not only provide you with a chance to de-stress, but can also give you some much needed “me time” before the baby arrives.

Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC offers behavioral health services for women, including stress and coping classes to meet the needs of women in pregnancy, postpartum, and later in life.