It was a few weeks before my firstborn was due -- and suddenly panic set in. By night, I would dream that I forgot to feed the baby or neglected to take him along when I left the apartment. By day, I would obsess about every aspect of childbirth, from the serious (What if the cord wraps around his neck?) to the relatively trivial (Should I get an enema?).
As I later discovered, mothers-to-be often worry incessantly as they approach the end of pregnancy. After all, the dreamy fantasy of having a baby is fast becoming a reality! But hard facts and helpful tips can calm those eleventh-hour jitters. So take off your shoes, raise your feet, and read on for some reassuring responses to common concerns.
1. "I'm Concerned My Baby Won't Be Healthy"
Don't worry, a healthy baby is by far the rule, rather than the exception. According to Luis B. Curet, MD, professor emeritus of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, more than 90 percent of pregnancies result in perfectly healthy babies. Those are pretty good odds.
Moreover, problems involving a baby's anatomy or development are often identified early, so the longer your pregnancy stays trouble-free, the more confident you can feel. "If you're nine months pregnant, you're feeling your baby move every day, you've had your routine tests, and everything's gone well during your checkups, there's more than a 99 percent chance that your baby will be fine," says Marjorie Greenfield, MD, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology with the University Hospitals of Cleveland and Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.
Nevertheless, it's wise to recognize that certain health complications, though rare, can occur. One is preterm labor, which can lead to premature delivery, or delivery before the 37th week of pregnancy, resulting in the baby weighing less than 5 1/2 pounds. While certain factors predispose a woman to premature delivery (such as carrying more than one baby, or smoking cigarettes), about half of all premature births involve no known risk factors.
The good news is that premature delivery can sometimes be stopped or delayed if a woman receives prompt medical attention at the first sign of early labor. For these reasons, it pays to use common sense in the time preceding your 37th week of pregnancy -- take your prenatal vitamins, keep up with routine office visits, and contact your doctor at once if you experience contractions, pelvic pressure, bleeding, or fever.
2. "Stress Will Harm My Baby"
While pregnant women might worry that stress will be harmful to their growing baby, the facts are not so clear. Many obstetricians have reported that some of their patients have faced extremely stressful events (such as the loss of a parent or loved one) and then gone on to have normal deliveries, while other women under no excessive stress deliver prematurely.
However, according to the March of Dimes, some research shows a link between stress-related hormones and both preterm labor and low birth weight babies. Other studies are currently exploring whether stress can alter the in utero environment and predispose a baby to health problems later in life. For now, moms-to-be would be wise to reduce their stress as much as they can -- by exercising in moderation and asking family members or friends to help out with chores.
In fact, most experts maintain that chronic stress is more likely to cause problems. "If stress is causing you to skip regular meals, not sleep at night, or turn to alcohol to cope, seek help quickly," says Siobhan Dolan, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in the Bronx, New York, and the medical adviser to the March of Dimes. "These responses can complicate pregnancy."
What About Me?
3. "I'm Afraid of Losing Myself"
You've begun your third trimester, and life has never felt so demanding. There are layette checklists to review, baby accessories to buy, hospital forms to complete -- and your calendar is filled with doctor appointments, childbirth classes, and interviews with potential pediatricians. Suddenly the full impact of this 24-7 project hits you, and you wonder: What's going to happen to me?
It's perfectly normal to worry that adding a new person to your life will mean that something's got to go. But if you're feeling this way, just take a look at the mothers you know: Most of them have found a way to resume at least some of their favorite activities. "It's true that life will change after your baby is born, but not so drastically that you'll have no time for yourself," says Diane Sanford, PhD, co-author of Postpartum Survival Guide (New Harbinger). "Try to continue the things you did before the baby was born, especially the things you really enjoyed." You can arrange periodically for a caregiver, but also keep in mind that babies during their first year are pretty easy to take along, whether you're going to a friend's house, a museum, a restaurant, or a shopping mall.
Sanford also points out that motherhood, rather than a route toward losing yourself, is often a path toward finding yourself -- and a doorway to personal growth. "As the months pass, you may find that you have a far greater capacity for gentleness and patience than you ever imagined. Spiritually, you may also start to get a new sense of being part of a bigger purpose in the universe," she says.
4. "I Won't Be Able to Handle Childbirth"
There's no way around the fact that childbirth involves pain, but you can take steps to keep yourself fairly comfortable. These days, many hospitals routinely offer women in labor various methods of pain relief, from epidurals to narcotics such as Demerol. Because information can help ease your fears, it's wise to enroll in a childbirth education class. Many hospitals offer classes, or you can find one through word of mouth. "Childbirth classes help you understand the process of birth," says Judith Lothian, RN, an associate professor in the College of Nursing at Seton Hall University, in South Orange, New Jersey. "They give you more confidence to deal with the pain."
Of course, many women opt for nonmedical approaches to pain relief, such as massage and relaxation techniques. If you choose this route, make sure the setting in which you plan to deliver will support your decision. Some doctors expect their patients to have epidurals, and it may be hard to buck the trend once you're in the middle of labor. One final piece of advice is to try to develop a positive outlook. Remember that women's bodies have handled labor since long before there were the kinds of medical relief we now rely on. Try to have faith that your body will get the job done and that the people you've chosen to assist you will help you through the rough spots.
Remember, too, that childbirth does end, usually within one day. "And then," says Dr. Greenfield, "just think of the great present you take home!"
5. "I Won't Be a Good Mother"
Worrying about your parenting skills is a positive sign, according to Diane Ross Glazer, PhD, a psychotherapist with the Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center, in Tarzana, California. "It shows that you want to do a good job," she says. Fortunately, as she points out, "parenting is a conscious activity" -- so you can take steps to turn yourself into the kind of parent you want to be, by reading books and taking classes. If you're really worried about caring for a very young baby, hire a baby nurse or ask one of your relatives to help for the first few weeks.
At the same time, don't lose sight of the unique abilities you bring to this endeavor. "Remind yourself of the challenges you've faced in the past, and how often you've risen to the occasion," urges Sanford. And keep in mind that you don't need to be an expert on potty training or school lunches the moment your child is born. Your parenting style can develop as your baby grows.
While the prospect of being responsible for a helpless infant can be daunting, rest assured that you'll likely do better than you think. "Most mothers intuitively understand how to care for and nurture a new baby," says Sanford. "So go ahead -- trust yourself."
Barbara Solomon is a writer in Scarsdale, New York.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, September 2006.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.