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YOUR HEALTH: Stress and the baby of your future

Researchers know stress during pregnancy can contribute to preterm birth, but what about stress before pregnancy?

LOS ANGELES — Every year in the United States, 380,000 babies are born before the 37th week of pregnancy. 

Prematurity can create life-long health complications affecting the lungs, the brain, and the heart. 

Smoking, excess weight, high blood pressure, or diabetes during pregnancy are all known risk factors for premature birth. 

For years, stress has also been on the list. 

But now researchers are looking at the impact of stress before conception.

"Moms who were experiencing heavy stress before they even became pregnant, had shorter gestation, shorter pregnancies," explained UCLA Psychology professor Christine Dunkel Schetter.

Many women worry that stress may lead to miscarriage, but while extra stress isn't good for your overall health, there's no evidence that stress causes miscarriage.

Professor Dunkel Schetter and her research team at UCLA surveyed 360 mothers about their general stress or perceived stress levels. 

They also asked about environmental stressors including money worries, job loss, lack of food, parenting challenges, and interpersonal violence. 

They found that a woman's stress, up to four years before conception, impacted the length of her pregnancy.

"So, it certainly is surprising to be able to show that you can go that far back and affect an outcome of a nine-month pregnancy," said Dunkel Schetter.

For every one point increase in reported prenatal maternal stress, the research team noticed: 

  • a 38% increase in infectious illness
  • a 73% increase in non-infectious illness
  • a 53% increase in variety of illnesses among the infants

The researchers say the findings suggest women need mental health and wellness support well before becoming pregnant to protect the health of their future families. 

They found women who were exposed to the highest and lowest amounts of stress in their environments had the shortest pregnancies. while women who had moderate amounts of stress before conception had the longest pregnancies. 

The researchers say women exposed to moderate stress may have developed effective coping strategies.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.