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Can Stress Cause Premature Labor?

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Updated May 15, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

A pregnant women at her desk, head in hands.

Stress during pregnancy can increase your risk for premature labor.

Image copyright E Dygas / Getty Images
Question: Can Stress Cause Premature Labor?
I've been really stressed out during this pregnancy. I've heard that stress can be bad for my baby and even cause me to have a preemie. Can stress really cause premature labor?
Answer:

If you're having a stressful pregnancy, my heart goes out to you. Dealing with the symptoms of pregnancy can be hard enough when life is going well. When life is stressful, pregnancy is even harder to cope with.

Although stress can be harder to manage during a pregnancy, it's important to try to relax. Stress, especially chronic stress, can increase your risk of having a small baby or going into premature labor.

How Can Stress Cause Preterm Labor?

The beginning of labor is a complex process that is not fully understood. Mutiple hormones and body systems in both mom and baby are involved, and predicting when labor will start is very difficult. Because labor is complex and hard to study, we can't say for sure that stress causes preterm labor. Studies show that moms with more stress are more likely to go into labor early, so we can say that stress increases a mom's risk of premature labor.

During stressful situations, the body reacts in a number of ways. Heart rate and blood pressure increase, and hormones flood the body. Stress can be either acute or chronic.

  • In acute stress, the body's reaction to stress is short-lived. A stressful situation occurs and is coped with, and the body returns to normal.
  • In chronic stress, a stressful situation occurs and is not resolved, or reoccurs. The body is not able to cope with the stressful situation and does not return to normal.

Acute stress does not seem to inrease the chances that a mom will go into preterm labor. If you have an occasional argument with your baby's father or have trouble paying the bills sometimes, you're not at risk.

The changes that chronic stress makes to the body are what doctors think might contribute to preterm labor. Chronic stress causes long-term changes in the body's vascular system, hormone levels, and ability to fight infection. These changes could all potentially help labor to start before the baby is due. Divorce, the death of a loved one, long-term unemployment, and anxiety related to your pregnancy can all cause the kind of chronic stress that increases your risk for preterm birth.

How Can I Reduce My Stress During Pregnancy?

There are a few things moms can do to help with stress during pregnancy. More research needs to be done into which relaxation strategies will help reduce the risk of preterm birth, but anything that reduces chronic stress could possibly increase your chances of having a term baby.

  • Counseling: In one small study, researchers found that moms with chronic stress who had pyschological counseling during their pregnancies were less likely to deliver early.
  • Exercise: Exercise can help with stress relief, but make sure to talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program. Yoga has been shown to improve pregnancy outcomes and reduce the risk of preterm birth, and is generally safe to do while pregnant.
  • Complementary therapies: Massage, aromatherapy, acupuncture, and hypnotherapy can help to reduce stress. No studies have been done to show if they reduce the risk of preterm birth, however.

Sources:

Holzman, C., Senagore, P., Tian, Y., Bullen, B., DeVos, E., Leece, C., Zanella, A., Fink, G., Rahbar, M., and Sapkal, A. "Maternal Catecholamine Levels in Midpregnancy and Risk of Preterm Delivery." American Journal of Epidemiology Sept. 9, 2009: 170, 1014 - 1023.

Latendresse, G. "The Interaction Between Chronic Stress and Pregnancy: Preterm Birth From a Biobehavioral Perspective." Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health 2009: 54, 8-17.

Kramer, M., Lydon, J., Seguin, L., Goulet, L., Kahn, S., McNamara, H., Genest, J., Dassa, C., Chen, M., Sharma, S., Meaney, M., Thomson, S., Van Uum, S., Koren, G., Dahhou, M., Lamoureux, J., and Platt, R. "Stress Pathways to Spontaneous Preterm Birth: The Role of Stressors, Psychological Distress, and Stress Hormones." American Journal of Epidemiology Apr. 2009: 169, 1319-1326.

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  4. Causes of Premature Birth
  5. Stess and Preterm Birth - Can Stress Cause Preterm Birth

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