More than 4 million babies are born in this country each year, and the vast majority arrive healthy and full-term. But that doesn't stop moms-to-be from worrying about, well, about almost everything when it comes to their developing baby. Could that cocktail you sipped before you knew you were pregnant cause a birth defect? What about that antibiotic you used? Might job stress or anxiety about money cause preterm labor? Will you completely freak during childbirth, ripping off the fetal heart monitor, tearing out your IV, and sending labor and delivery nurses running for cover? The answer, in most cases: highly unlikely. Read on for even more reassuring news about your biggest pregnancy and childbirth fears.
Seventy-eight percent of pregnant women rated birth defects as their number-one concern, according to a recent March of Dimes survey. Yet the organization reports that less than 4 percent of babies will have any form of birth defect -- and most of those problems won't be life threatening. "The two most common structural defects are a cleft lip and cleft palate, which are correctable with surgery," notes Diane Ashton, M.D., the deputy medical director of the national office of the March of Dimes, in White Plains, New York.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: The risk of some birth defects, such as spina bifida, can be significantly decreased by taking 400mg of folic acid per day during pregnancy, says Dr. Ashton. Two things that increase your risk of delivering a baby with any birth defect: advanced maternal age and genetics. So if you're over 35 or have a family history of certain birth defects, check with your doc about getting extra testing and scans during pregnancy.
The thought of a fragile preemie in an incubator, hooked up to a slew of machines, can be haunting to expectant moms. But in reality, nearly 90 percent of babies born in this country arrive full-term. What's more, many babies born prematurely actually arrive between 34 and 37 weeks -- which is considered "late preterm." "Babies born during this time generally do quite well," assures Barbara O'Brien, M.D., a perinatologist and an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Brown University's Alpert Medical School, in Providence.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Carrying multiples and already having given birth to a preemie both increase your chances of having a preterm birth (if you fall into either category, talk to your M.D. about delivering in a hospital with a neonatal intensive care unit). Doctors advise that all pregnant women, even those who are nowhere near their due date, become familiar with the signs of premature labor (experiencing regular contractions, pelvic pressure, a low, dull backache, or vaginal discharge such as blood or leaking fluid). If you have any of these symptoms, your doctor can give you drugs to try to stop the labor, explains Dr. O'Brien. "We can also administer steroids to help the fetus's lungs develop faster, in case he's born early."
Because everyone responds to it differently, it's hard to make general statements about how anxiety affects a fetus. "However, the everyday stress of not being able to pay off a credit-card bill or juggling work and family issues won't cause birth defects or preterm labor," says Dr. O'Brien. In fact, having a bad day at work or a fight with your spouse, for example, can be good for a developing fetus. In two studies from Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, children born to women who reported higher levels of daily stress during their pregnancy had a more mature nervous system at birth in one study and were more advanced in mental and motor skills by age 2 than children of less-stressed moms in the other. The researchers think that stress hormones can actually aid organ growth and development.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Research shows that prolonged, severe stress (the kind you might experience during a divorce or with the loss of a loved one) can increase the risk of having a preterm, low-birthweight baby. Even if the anxiety you experience isn't severe, you'll still enjoy your pregnancy more if you can reduce your stress level. "Counseling, moderate exercise, and meditation can all help," notes Dr. Ashton. Other stress-busting strategies to try: massage, light walking, pre-natal yoga, deep breathing, and positive-imagery exercises.
No doctor would recommend that a woman have a margarita or smoke cigarettes during pregnancy. Still, moms-to-be often do these things before they even realize they're carrying. "Although there is no amount of alcohol that is considered safe for a growing fetus, if you had one or two drinks in the weeks before you knew you'd conceived, it shouldn't affect your baby's organ development," says Dr. O'Brien -- so don't stress out about it.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Alcohol crosses the placenta to the fetus, and in large quantities it can cause mental retardation and learning, emotional, and behavioral problems as well as birth defects. And women who smoke during pregnancy have a significantly greater chance of miscarrying, giving birth to a stillborn, or losing a newborn due to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) than nonsmokers do. Their infants also tend to be born smaller, more restless, and more likely to develop learning problems as they grow older than those of nonsmoking moms. With all the stress that comes with getting prepped for your little one, giving up smoking might seem especially tough -- but you've likely never had a better reason either. For support and information on ending the habit, visit parentsquitforgood.com.
We won't lie: Labor hurts. But think of all the women who go through it -- and then opt to do it again. Fear of childbirth really has to do with fear of the unknown, so arming yourself with information can help you calm down. "Childbirth classes aren't just about teaching breathing techniques," explains Pamela Berens, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. They're also about showing you what's available for pain relief, how the hospital works, and what will happen if you need a C-section. Knowing what to anticipate can make things a lot less scary.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Even if you happen to freak out, you won't be the first to do so. Delivery-room staff have seen everything -- so don't be embarrassed if you scream or curse a little (or a lot). "It's very uncommon for us not to be able to calm a woman down," says Dr. Berens. "Just a few deep breaths and talking through the situation can help."
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Parents magazine.