Every year in the United States, 380,000 babies are born before the 37th week of pregnancy. Prematurity can create life-long health complications affecting the lungs, the brain, and the heart. Now, a team of researchers has found a woman’s level of stress even before she gets pregnant can have serious consequences for her baby.
Smoking, excess weight, high blood pressure, or diabetes during pregnancy are all known risk factors for premature birth. For years, stress has also been on the list. But now researchers are looking at the impact of stress before conception.
“Moms who were experiencing heavy stress before they even became pregnant, had shorter gestation, shorter pregnancies,” said Christine Dunkel Schetter, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Dunkel Schetter and her research team at UCLA surveyed 360 mothers about their general stress or perceived stress levels. They also asked about environmental stressors including money worries, job loss, lack of food, parenting challenges, and interpersonal violence.
They found that a woman’s stress—up to four years before conception—impacted the length of her pregnancy.
“So, it certainly is surprising to be able to show that you can go that far back and affect an outcome of a nine-month pregnancy,” explained Dunkel Schetter.
The researchers say the findings suggest women need mental health and wellness support well before becoming pregnant to protect the health of their future families.
The researchers found women who were exposed to the highest and lowest amounts of stress in their environments had the shortest pregnancies. While women who had moderate amounts of stress before conception had the longest pregnancies. The researchers say women exposed to moderate stress may have developed effective coping strategies.