It's normal to be concerned about your pregnancy and impending motherhood. Here's when to worry and when to relax.

pregnant patient with doctor
Credit: Valua Vitaly/

"I'm concerned that my baby won't be born healthy."

It was a few weeks before my firstborn was due, and suddenly utter panic set in. By night I would dream that I forgot to feed the baby. By day I would obsess about every aspect of childbirth, from the serious (What if the cord is wrapped around his neck?) to the relatively trivial (Should I or should I not get an enema?).

As I later found out, mothers-to-be often worry incessantly toward the end of pregnancy. After all, the fantasy of having a baby is fast becoming an actual event! But hard facts and helpful tips can really calm those jitters. So put up your feet and read on for some reassuring responses to common third-trimester worries.

"I'm concerned that my baby won't be born healthy."

According to Luis B. Curet, MD, professor emeritus of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, more than 90 percent of pregnancies result in healthy babies. Those are pretty good odds. And problems involving a baby's anatomy or development are often found during the early stages of pregnancy, so the longer yours stays trouble-free, the more confident you can feel.

Nevertheless it's wise to recognize that certain complications, though rare, can pose a threat to your baby. One is preterm delivery, when a baby arrives before the 37th week of pregnancy. Premature babies are more likely than their full-term counterparts to have health issues; if they survive, they stand a good chance of suffering physical or developmental problems. While certain factors predispose a woman to premature delivery (such as smoking or carrying more than one baby), about half of all premature births involve no known risk factors.

The good news? Premature delivery can be stopped or delayed if a woman receives prompt medical attention at the first sign of early labor. If you experience contractions, fluid leaking from your vagina, lower back pain, abdominal pain, or bleeding, contact your doctor immediately. In addition, maintaining good habits during pregnancy, such as eating well, taking your prenatal vitamins, and keeping up with routine obstetrical visits, can help reduce your odds of delivering prematurely.

"Stress will harm my baby."

Stress is a condition of being physically or emotionally overloaded. A scary experience, a bitter argument, or a too-vigorous workout can all produce stress, which causes our bodies to release hormones that can lead to sweaty palms, quickened breathing, and an elevated heart rate. It can also trigger emotional outcomes, such as sorrow or panic.

Many pregnant women worry that stress is harmful to their growing baby, but the facts are not so clear. Doctors report that some of their patients have faced extremely stress-producing experiences (such as the loss of a loved one) and then gone on to have normal deliveries, while other women under no excessive stress delivered prematurely. "Much of the data on the effects of September 11th are now coming out," says Siobhan Dolan, MD, medical advisor to the March of Dimes. "They may show that the stress of that day was more harmful to women in their first trimester than in later stages."

Chronic stress, as opposed to one very stressful event, is most likely to cause late-pregnancy problems. "It may force some women to forego regular meals. Others may turn to cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs, all of which can complicate a pregnancy," says Dr. Dolan.

Some research shows a link between stress-related hormones and both preterm labor and low birth weight babies. Moms-to-be are wise to reduce their stress by exercising in moderation, practicing yoga or meditation, and asking family or friends to help with chores.

"I won't be able to handle childbirth."

Having a baby involves pain, but you can take steps to keep yourself comfortable. Most hospitals offer various types of pain relief, from epidurals to narcotics.

Because information can ease your fears, it's wise to enroll in childbirth education classes. Many hospitals offer them, or you can find one through word of mouth. "These classes teach mothers-to-be about the entire birth process," says Judith Lothian, RN, a Lamaze childbirth educator.

Of course, some women opt for nonmedical pain relief, such as breathing techniques. If you choose this route, make sure your hospital or birthing center supports your decision. Many hospital staffs assume you'll want an epidural, and it may be hard to resist in the middle of labor. One final piece of advice: Keep a positive outlook. Your body is designed to do this, and most labors end within one day -- just stay focused on the great gift you're taking home!

"I won't be a good mother."

Worrying about your parenting skills is a positive sign, according to Diane Ross Glazer, PhD, a psychotherapist 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 parent you want to be. Books and classes are great resources, and you can learn a lot by talking with other moms.

At the same time, don't lose sight of the unique abilities you bring to the endeavor. "Remind yourself of the challenges you've faced in the past and how often you've risen to the occasion," urges Diane Sanford, PhD, coauthor of Postpartum Survival Guide (New Harbinger, 1994). And keep in mind that you don't need to be an expert on child-rearing at first. Your parenting style develops as your baby grows.

While the prospect of caring for a helpless infant can be daunting, rest assured that you'll likely do better than you think. "Most mothers intuitively understand how to nurture a new baby," says Sanford. "So trust yourself."

Barbara Solomon is a mother of three in Scarsdale, New York.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, March 2004.

American Baby