How Much Stress Is 'Too Much' When You're Pregnant?

Can too much stress during pregnancy be harmful? Learn about the different ways excess stress can impact your pregnancy, and how you can reduce the risk.

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Research has long shown that high levels of stress can both directly and indirectly impact the health of a pregnant person and their fetus. Prolonged bouts of severe stress can negatively impact pregnancy, potentially causing complications like preterm birth, low birth weight, and even sleep and behavioral disorders.

But stress can come in many forms, including everyday stressors like loud sounds, poor sleep, or hectic schedules. These types of stress can be temporary and are often easily addressed, but what about the stress that you can't fix with a good night's sleep?

The important thing to remember is that we all experience stress. And when you're pregnant, it's natural for every emotion can be heightened (thanks, in part, to those surging pregnancy hormones). Still, prolonged, escalated, or chronic stress can come with some negative side effects, so it's best to be prepared.

So, how much stress is "too much" when pregnant? The answer depends on what kind of stress you're experiencing and how you handle it. Read on to learn more.

The Difference Between Everyday Stress and Chronic Stress

Regular, everyday stressors like impending deadlines at work, having an argument with your partner, juggling child care for older children, or having your routine interrupted by inconveniences can certainly feel stressful, but they are mostly harmless to your pregnancy.

The type of stress that is generally considered "too much" during pregnancy, that is the type of stress that can cause pregnancy complications, is severe and chronic. This type of stress could be caused by any number of things, including:

  • Life events such as job loss, serious illness, death of a loved one, or divorce
  • Catastrophic events like earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, terrorism, or war
  • Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or eating disorders
  • Environmental stress such as that caused by poverty, systemic racism, or domestic violence and abuse

Of course, the pregnancy complications that disproportionately affect people experiencing these circumstances aren't limited to the stress the pregnant person experiences. For example, poverty and systemic racism can negatively impact pregnancy because they place unfair and burdensome barriers between pregnant people and access to quality health care, nutrition, safe housing, mental health services, paid parental leave, and child care services—and these factors compound.

How Stress Can Contribute to Pregnancy Complications

Stress is complicated, and experts don't entirely understand how stress can impact a person's overall health, but there does appear to be a link between high levels of stress and certain health conditions and pregnancy complications.

For example, chronic stress can increase blood pressure and cause hypertension, potentially putting a pregnant person at risk for preeclampsia and preterm labor.

Chronic stress can also have more wide-reaching effects on a person's health and wellness during pregnancy. High levels of stress can suppress your immune system, making you more susceptible to infection. It can also negatively affect sleep, putting you at risk of sleep deprivation which can lead to accidents and injury. Excess stress can also exacerbate common pregnancy complaints like morning sickness and back pain and make it harder to cope.

How a person responds to stress can also affect their pregnancy. For example, over- or under-eating and substance use (such as smoking, drinking alcohol, or using drugs) are common responses to stress that can have detrimental effects on a person's health and pregnancy.

How Stress During Pregnancy Can Affect Babies After Birth

In addition to pregnancy complications, research shows that the effects of severe chronic stress during pregnancy can potentially continue to impact babies after they are born.

Stress and a baby's microbiome

Research has shown that stress in the first trimester can negatively affect the microbes that reside in a pregnant person's vagina. When a baby is born vaginally, the newborn is exposed to these microbes, which affect their own gut microbiome and brain development.

In turn, the affected microbes impact the infant's immune system and metabolism. Scientists believe that the stress-altered gut microbiota is linked to a greater risk of neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism and schizophrenia.

These effects were observed in a University of Pennsylvania lab in pregnant mice who had to endure stressors such as unfamiliar noises, predator odors, and being restrained. This all occurred during early gestation, or what might be considered the equivalent of a human's first trimester.

"Our findings in our mouse model are consistent with epidemiological studies indicating that the first trimester is a dynamic and critical period to a variety of environmental factors—stress, infection, and malnutrition—that have been associated with an increased risk for neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, schizophrenia, and ADHD," says postdoctoral researcher and study author Eldin Jašarević.

Some of the team's previous work also looked at stress during mid and late pregnancy, but they didn't find these periods to be as vulnerable.

Stress and baby's sleep

Researchers have long known that pregnant people who experience "preconception psychological distress," including diagnosed severe anxiety and depression, have babies with a 23% increased risk of sleep disturbances up to a year after birth.

The likely link: The stress hormone cortisol, which floods the body when you feel excess stress.

"This chemical can cross the placenta, affecting the part of the brain that regulates a child's sleep-wake cycles," says study author Thomas O'Connor, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center. "We know that child sleep is often an important measure of healthy development, so it's crucial that [pregnant people] pay attention to high-stress levels, which can ultimately trigger chronic anxiety and depression."

Stress and a baby's stress response

In a study cited and discussed by the American Heart Association, researchers found that high levels of cortisol—the stress hormone—in pregnant people can have future consequences for their babies beyond their sleep.

When a person experiences high levels of stress, their system pumps out higher levels of cortisol, which is the hormone that causes blood pressure and heart rate to increase, triggering the fight-or-flight response. The study showed that babies born under such conditions in the womb had difficulties with anxiety 45 years later.

Scientists believe that that flood of cortisol in the pregnant parent's system can alter the "setpoints" in a developing fetus's brain, eventually making that child's brain primed to deal with a threatening world. But if that child lives in an environment that is safe and non-threatening, their brain, which is now expecting to put up a fight, becomes anxious instead.

Although that research may sound like doom and gloom, it is important to note that these same researchers also found that how a person deals with their anxiety can make a huge impact on their quality of life.

Ways to Relieve Stress During Pregnancy

Some pregnancy stress is inevitable, but if stress begins to feel insurmountable or non-stop, you can relieve it in a number of ways. Here are a few tried and true methods to calm those anxious nerves:

  • Find support. Talk to another pregnant person or experienced parent who can put any pregnancy fears into perspective.
  • Journal. Jot down thoughts that are keeping you up at night; sometimes, getting them down on paper can make you take a more proactive approach to solving problems.
  • Exercise. Any form of light to moderate exercise from a brisk walk to swimming laps can be beneficial for relieving stress during pregnancy, but many people swear by prenatal yoga. Try out a class at your local community center or yoga studio or try a free online class from home.
  • Meditate. Try practicing mindfulness, especially if you find your thoughts turning negative. Consider using a meditation app that can guide you through mediations and mindfulness exercises.
  • Fuel your body. Do your best to eat a balanced diet that includes nutritious food choices, prenatal vitamins, healthy hydration, and, of course, the occasional treat.
  • Prioritize getting restful sleep. Not only do you need sleep to function at your best, but that restful slumber is essential to the health of your growing pregnancy. Sleep can be elusive during pregnancy and times of high stress, so do what you can to get those z's as often as possible.
  • Seek professional help. If you're having difficulty coping with your stress on your own or could use some additional support, consider seeking help from a mental health care provider. Not sure where to start? Try calling the National Maternal Mental Health Hotline at 1-833-852-6262.

The important thing is to find what works for you—even if it's as simple as closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths or taking a quick walk to clear your mind.

Since every person experiences stress differently and what drives you to the edge may be no big deal for someone else, and vice versa, it's important to know yourself and your limits. If you start to experience symptoms you can't shake (like feeling worried all the time, losing interest in your life, feeling hopeless, sleeping or eating more or less than usual, or having difficulty concentrating), you should let your doctor know. These could be signs of depression or an anxiety disorder and should be addressed and treated right away.

Key Takeaways

How much stress is too much when pregnant largely depends on the type of stress and how you handle it. Research shows that high levels of stress can negatively impact a pregnant person and a growing fetus. That said, there is also plenty of evidence that taking proactive steps to stay healthy during pregnancy—including addressing stress and anxiety—can help mitigate the risks to you and your baby.

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Parents uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Effects of Prenatal Stress on Pregnancy and Human Development: Mechanisms and Pathways. Obstetric Medicine. 2013.

  2. Alterations in the Vaginal Microbiome by Maternal Stress Are Associated Metabolic Reprogramming of the Offspring Gut and Brain. Endocrinology. 2015.

  3. Role of Gut Microbiome in Autism Spectrum Disorder and Its Therapeutic Regulation. Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology. 2022.

  4. Infant Sleep Disturbances Is Associated with Preconceptual Psychological Distress: Findings from the Southampton Women's Survey. Oxford Academic Sleep. 2009

  5. Impact of Prenatal Maternal Cytokine Exposure on Sex Differences in Brain Circuitry Regulating Stress 45 Years Later. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2021.

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