As a pregnant mother, there’s always something to worry about. You worry about the health of the baby. You worry about what you should or shouldn’t do (because you are worried about the health of the baby). You worry about the delivery. You worry about paying for everything a child needs. You worry about finding good childcare. You worry about whether you’ll be a good parent.

Now there’s a study in the journal Pediatrics telling us that pregnant mothers have something else to worry about: the worrying itself.

Researchers in the Netherlands measured the stress and anxiety of 174 pregnant women using questionnaires as well as by measuring their cortisol levels (certain kinds of elevations of this hormone are associated with stress). After the babies were born, they got information every month from the mothers about the health of their babies. What they found was that the babies born to mothers who were stressed and anxious during pregnancy had more illnesses than those born to less stressed and anxious mothers.

It’s a small study, and it’s not like there was a huge difference in the numbers of illnesses. I’m also a little suspicious of the results; it seems to me that mothers who are more stressed generally might be more likely to interpret a sniffle as an illness than mothers who are happier and calmer.
With the inherent stresses of pregnancy, moms need to take time out for themselves.

With the inherent stresses of pregnancy, moms need to take time out for themselves.

But it’s a study worth paying attention to. This isn’t the first time that a connection has been made between maternal stress during pregnancy and the health of the baby. Previous studies have connected stress with prematurity and lower birth weight. And we certainly know that stress can handicap the immune system.

It’s worth paying attention also because I worry sometimes that pregnancy has become more stressful. Advances in medicine have led to more screening tests during pregnancy, which is mostly a good thing. But sometimes the results are unclear, or confusing, which can be very stressful for parents. And the mere existence of the tests, and the waiting for results, is stressful. It can be hard to just be happy about being pregnant—you have to wait and see what all the tests show.

Add to that the information explosion brought by the Internet. There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of web sites out there telling you exactly what you should (or should not) do during pregnancy, exactly what you should feel, exactly what you should weigh or look like—and many contradict each other. It was bad enough when you just had your friends and relatives giving you advice (sometimes unwanted). Now, with a few keystrokes, hundreds of other people can join in. Yikes.

Some pregnancies are indeed stressful, like when the mother or baby has a health problem, or when things like homelessness, violence, or other trauma are involved. In these cases, health care providers need to work closely with the mother to find supports and resources.

But most pregnancies aren’t that way (thank goodness). In most pregnancies, stress can be managed—if you take control of it. I realize I may be making that sound easier than it is, but it’s worth trying. Here are some suggestions:

* If your health care providers say that you’re having a healthy pregnancy, believe them. It’s hard, but try not to second guess them. Definitely let them know if you have a question or concern, but trust the people you’ve chosen to care for you.
* Take an inventory of your worries. Seriously. Write them down. And then make a plan for each one. For example, if there are any medical worries, talk to your doctor or midwife (talking to them early and often about delivery worries is a good idea, too). If you have financial worries, make a budget and see where you can cut expenses. If you’re worried about childcare, start looking early (get ideas from friends). Worried about parenting? Buy books on parenting that resonate with you, or pick them up at your local library. Not that making a plan necessarily takes away all the worry, but it can turn what feels like a cloud around you and the pregnancy into something much more manageable.
* Take care of yourself. Get some exercise. Pamper yourself whenever you can. Try out a prenatal yoga class—or if that sounds like too much work, devote a little time each day to doing exactly what you feel like doing. Which may be nothing at all, or a nap.

If none of this works, and you’re frequently feeling stressed, let your doctor or midwife know. Let someone help you. Counseling can make a real difference, as can medication (there are many that are safe in pregnancy).

Getting ready for a new baby should be a happy, wonderful thing. Let it be that way. Do it for yourself—and do it for your baby.

Claire McCarthy, MD, is a primary care physician and the medical director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Martha Eliot Health Center.

For more great parenting tips and pediatric information please check out Thrive, the pediatric blog of Children's Hospital Boston