What is stress?

Stress is a normal reaction to changes and challenges. Even good or exciting changes can be stressful.

Some stress can be helpful, because it gives you the motivation and focus to face challenges and get things done.

But too much stress can be overwhelming, making it difficult to cope with everyday tasks. Too much stress can affect your body, thoughts and feelings. It can also affect your behaviour – for example, some people who are overstressed might eat too much or get angry.

Stress and pregnancy

For some expectant parents, pregnancy itself can be stressful.

For example, waiting for and getting the results of antenatal tests can cause stress. If you’ve gone through fertility treatment or experienced a previous miscarriage or death of a baby, pregnancy can be physically and emotionally demanding for you and your family.

Pregnancy can also mean lots of changes in your life. As well as emotional, physical and thinking changes, you might be feeling overloaded with information, advice and stories from family, friends and others.

Other events and situations that can cause emotional upheaval and high levels of stress in pregnancy include:

  • financial problems
  • relationship problems and/or break-up
  • the need to move house or the process of moving house
  • the need to change your job or work hours
  • other children who need help adjusting to the pregnancy
  • family illness or death of a family member
  • grief
  • family violence
  • problems with alcohol and other drugs
  • history of mental illness, anxiety or depression.

Your stress levels can be higher if several of these things are happening at the same time.

Unlike some other lifestyle factors that you’ll be told to avoid during pregnancy – for example, smoking and alcohol – you can’t get rid of all the stress in your life. But you can learn how to recognise and deal with stress. This can help you have a healthier pregnancy and manage life more easily once your baby is born.

Recognising stress

It’s not always easy to recognise stress. Stress can feel like something you can’t do anything about. It might be something you don’t even recognise until it becomes overwhelming.

It can be easier to deal with stress if you know the things in your life that might cause stress, as well as the signs that you’re feeling stressed.

These questions might help you spot stress in your life:

  • Do you often feel stressed and anxious? Have you experienced a lot of stress in your life before you became pregnant? If you’re someone who tends to worry, you might need to be more aware of your emotions during times of change, including pregnancy.
  • Do you lead a busy life? If you need to look at your diary to know where you’re supposed to be and when, pregnancy is a good time to try to slow things down.
  • Is there a lot of change going on in your life? Sometimes even positive changes, like a promotion at work, can be stressful if you need to make big adjustments.
  • Do you feel like there’s a lot of stress in your home or work environment? For example, is your partner going through a tough time, or are you having trouble getting along with your boss? Sometimes it’s stress in people around us that can make things difficult.

You can also look out for these physical and thinking signs of stress:

  • lots of nervous energy – for example, not being able to sit still, or feeling edgy and ‘jumpy’
  • fast breathing or the feeling that your heart is beating faster
  • trouble relaxing and winding down
  • lots of thoughts racing around your mind – for example, thoughts and worries about the future.

If you notice any of these signs in yourself while you’re pregnant, you might need to be aware of stress and find ways of managing it during pregnancy and after the birth.

How stress can affect mum and baby

Stress can have a big influence on people’s health generally. There is some evidence that stress in pregnancy can affect the health of both mother and baby.

The good news is that stress is unlikely to have serious consequences if it’s managed the right way. And the happier and healthier the environment after the birth, the lower any health risks become for mother and child.

Antenatal appointments with your midwife or doctor are your chance to talk about your health, lifestyle and wellbeing, including things in your life that might be causing stress. For example, if you’re worried about becoming a parent or there are problems in your relationship, including family violence, it’s a good idea for you to talk about it, so you can get support.

Tips for managing stress and pregnancy

Once you recognise it, stress can be managed quite well.

When you manage stress, your pregnancy is likely to be a more positive experience. Also, managing stress can help you and your baby avoid some of the harmful effects of stress, like a higher risk of health problems.

Managing stress in pregnancy is also important because there are likely to be new stresses after the birth, including a lack of sleep and adjusting to looking after a newborn. So it can help if you have other life stresses under control and stress management strategies in place already. If the birth was difficult or there were complications, you might need some extra support.

Here are some tips for managing stress during pregnancy.

Health and lifestyle

  • Do some light physical activity or exercise, like walking. As well as lowering stress, it has overall health benefits.
  • Try yoga, meditation or relaxation classes – if you can’t get to classes, you could try using an online or smartphone app that guides you through relaxation techniques.
  • Try to rest where you can and avoid booking in too many activities. It’s OK to lie on the couch, take a break and slow things down.
  • Do some activities that distract or engage you, like reading a magazine or book, watching your favourite TV show, baking, painting or something else you enjoy.
  • Try to take pressure off yourself to be perfect. Accept that you’re doing the best you can. Try not to worry if things aren’t quite the way you want them to be – for example, if your house is messy.
  • Say ‘yes’ to practical help during pregnancy and after your baby is born.

It can be tricky to fit some of these suggestions into your life if you have other children to care for, but even short periods of rest, relaxation and exercise time can help.

Family and friends

  • Spend time with people who make you feel good and help you de-stress. Ask for and accept help with things you’re struggling with. Support from people around you can help you manage stress.
  • Consider asking someone to be ‘gatekeeper’ – that is, if you have trouble saying no or slowing down, ask your partner or someone close to you to say no for you!
  • Connect with other expectant parents in our pregnancy forum. You can also watch a video on using Facebook to connect with other parents near you.

Professional support
Talk with your doctor or midwife about what might be making you feel stressed, and ask for suggestions about what you can do.

If you have money issues, the Commonwealth Financial Counselling program offers free financial counselling to people who are having financial problems. Centrelink offers free information and education to everybody through its Financial Information Service.

Smoking or using alcohol and other drugs to ‘deal with’ stress can be very dangerous for you and your baby. If you need help to quit, talk with your doctor or midwife. You can also call the Quitline on 137 848 or Lifeline on 131 114 for help.

Where to get help

If you don’t feel like you’re coping with stress, see your GP. The GP can give you general advice or refer you to a psychologist or counsellor for professional help and support. You can also talk to a midwife or doctor when you have your antenatal appointments. Most hospitals now have programs in place to help with issues like stress.

You can also contact: