Creating another human being within your own body is a full-time job, but what if you’re also working full-time? Work can be a very fulfilling and fun part of a pregnant woman’s life, (especially if your coworkers throw you a great baby shower). But let’s face it: work can be stressful, especially in a day and age where hustle culture is wearing us increasingly thin. Some stress can be healthy for you and your baby, supporting the development of his or her nervous system. But if your work is too psychologically or physically demanding, causing too much stress that you’re struggling to deal with, it can have a negative impact. Just like stress can affect your menstruation and ovulation, work stress can affect your health and your baby’s health -- in the womb and in the future.
According to WebMD, stress increases the risk of pre-term labor and low birth weight, in addition to other more long-term issues. Dr. Pathik Wadhwa, assistant professor of behavioral science, obstetrics, and gynecology at University of Kentucky College of Medicine, explains it like this: "When the mother is stressed, several biological changes occur, including elevation of stress hormones and increased likelihood of intrauterine infection. The fetus builds itself permanently to deal with this kind of high-stress environment, and once it's born may be at greater risk for a whole bunch of stress-related pathologies."
Those could include chronic health problems, like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, but they could also include effects on mood and IQ. As Johns Hopkins University developmental psychologist Janet DiPietro says, “Women's psychological functioning during pregnancy -- their anxiety level, stress, personality -- ultimately affects the temperament of their babies. It has to ... the baby is awash in all the chemicals produced by the mom."
How does stress affect your body -- and your baby? When stressed, pregnant women’s placentas increase production of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which “regulates the duration of pregnancy and fetal maturation.” More CRH will signal a woman’s body to give birth sooner. Women “become psychologically stronger" as their pregnancies mature, according to Dr. Curt Sandman, professor and vice chairman of the department of psychiatry at University of California, Irvine. So the first trimester is the most important time for determining the duration of labor; excess stress during this time can actually result in early labor.
If you’re pregnant now, don’t stress out about being stressed at work. The effects of excess stress are all about how you handle them, and with diligence, you can create a healthy system for coping with work stress.
Slow down: We all want to be superwoman, but it’s important to take care of yourself. Talk to your employer if you feel like work is putting too much stress on you and your growing baby. See if there are any ways that they can offer support, including any wellness resources that your workplace may offer to help with stress management. If stress at work is becoming unmanageable, consider taking unpaid leave while still pregnant (if your work offers it).
Get information: The fears in our minds can often lead to anxiety and stress, so do as much research as possible to help alleviate any worries you may have. Talk to other working moms to get advice on how to manage work and motherhood. Also, figure out what your maternity leave will look like, so you feel more in control of your future.
Get support: Rely on friends, family, and coworkers during this important time in your and your baby’s life. As the saying goes, it takes a village, so don’t be afraid to ask for help!
Relax: Find ways to reduce stress during the workday and after work. While at work, go on a walk, or stretch at your desk. Make sure your work environment is comfortable; if you work at an office, make sure your desk and chair fit your growing body by adding extra support if needed. Try new methods to reduce stress, like yoga or biofeedback.
Get away: When you’re away from work, be away from work. If your work uses a messaging service, like Slack, turn it off when you’re out of the office; if you can’t do that, at least try to create some boundaries, such as not checking your messages after a certain time in the evening, or taking an hour away from your phone.
Be positive: Practice mindfulness and gratitude. See if meditation may work for you. Journal about the things at work that are causing you stress to help identify any patterns and ways that you may be able to handle them differently. Also, write down what you’re grateful for. Try a guided imagery practice.
Pregnancy is a lot of work, and stress from your day job can make it harder. With some healthy habits, you can manage work stress to make life easier for you -- and your baby.