Last updated on Feb 17th, 2021 at 03:39 pm

A brain scanning study has revealed that infants’ brains may be shaped by levels of stress their mothers experience during pregnancy.

According to the study, stress levels in mothers – measured by a hormone linked to anxiety and other health problems – is related to changes in areas of the infant brain associated with emotional development.

Scientists measured the levels of the hormone cortisol (which is involved in the body’s response to stress) to study links with baby brain development.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh found that higher levels of cortisol in the mother’s hair were linked to structural changes in the infants’ amygdala, an area of the brain known to be involved in emotional and social development in childhood, as well as differences in brain connections.

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Lead researcher, Professor James Boardman, Director of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory at the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Our findings are a call to action to detect and support pregnant women who need extra help during pregnancy as this could be an effective way of promoting healthy brain development in their babies.”

How to stress less during pregnancy

Stress is unavoidable for many expectant moms. Most experience challenges like holding down a job while heavily pregnant, juggling home and work expectations, or taking care of other children. Being pregnant during a pandemic also comes with its own unique challenges and concerns.

ALSO SEE: Coronavirus and pregnancy: should you be concerned?

But, it’s important to remember that whatever you have to deal with, your baby has to deal with too.

Maintain a sense of self

Judy says one of the biggest problems pregnant and current moms face is the feeling that they’ve ‘disappeared’. “Women need to be mindful about how they’re going to look after and make time for themselves; whether it’s a massage, journaling or even going for a counselling session,” she advises.

Ignore the negativity

“Have healthy boundaries while learning how to let the good stuff in,” says Judy. Depending on the situation you find yourself in, either physical or emotional boundaries may apply. If you find yourself sitting in a room being regaled by horror birth stories you might choose to excuse yourself from the conversation. “Many women have a hard time standing up for themselves, but you’re perfectly within your rights to say: ‘I feel that it’s not good for me, or my baby, to be part of this conversation.’ You might also choose to remain in the room should you be able to block out the negativity.
You can simply nod and smile, without actually taking anything in. Don’t take on other people’s stuff. If your friend hated breastfeeding it doesn’t mean you will. So, don’t pre-empt the experience.”

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

“The sooner moms learn to do this, the better,” says Judy. “For some reason we want to prove to others how perfect we are, or we don’t want to inconvenience anyone.” She continues by explaining that working moms, especially, try to do everything themselves. Your emotions can be overwhelming as hormones wreak havoc in your body, so make sure to have some alone time and time to bond with your partner.

Don’t be afraid to say no

Whether you’re in your first trimester and feeling nauseous, or in the third and just feeling exhausted, don’t be afraid to say no to social invitations or a request to look after a friend’s kid for the afternoon. “You can be nice about it, but sometimes we’re just far too polite – at our own expense,” says Judy. “You don’t need to give anyone an explanation. It’s no one’s business if you just feel like wearing pyjamas all day and watching TV.”

Focus on the positives

There’s no point being upset about things that are impermanent: “Try to focus on how great your breasts and skin are looking rather than the bit of weight you might have picked up on your bum. Once you have the baby, you’ll likely lose it anyway,” says Judy.

It doesn’t have to be perfect

“Compare and despair,” says Judy. “The truth is, your baby could sleep in a shoebox for the first month and wouldn’t know the difference. If you don’t have everything ready in his room, don’t be hard on yourself. “This need to be perfect will also put your partner under pressure. So, instead of comparing yourself to your friend, acknowledge that everyone’s situation is different and find your own way to make things work.”

ALSO SEE: Moms share their tips for setting up a baby room

Just breathe

There are many breathing techniques you can use to calm your nerves whenever you feel overwhelmed. This easy-to-follow breathing technique focusses on inhalation, retention, and exhalation.

Sit in a comfortable position, relax your shoulders, and focus on your breathing:

  • Breathe in slowly for four counts.
  • Retain the breath for two counts.
  • Breathe out slowly for four counts.

If you’re feeling comfortable, slowly increase the length of inhalation and exhalation up to six or seven counts, but always keep the retention at two counts.

More about the expert:

Judy Klipin helps people cultivate essential life skills so that they feel and become more able in every area of their lives. She specializes in working with people who are exhausted and overwhelmed because they struggle with asking for help, feel responsible for everything and everyone around them, and tend to put themselves last. Learn more about Judy Klipin here.