Being Pregnant During a High-Stress Event (Like Hurricane Sandy) — What to Do

Photo: Thinkstock / The Bump
Photo: Thinkstock / The Bump

Guest post by Jada Shapiro, co-Founder of Birth Day Presence

You’re about to be a Mom. Now that you’ve seen it happen, you’ve probably already started making a plan for worst case scenario — just in case. You’re totally right; it’s a Mom’s job to listen to her maternal instincts and be prepared for anything. You’re not alone.

It’s also a common topic that students in our childbirth education classes have been asking about since the hurricane. How might extreme stress as a result of a catastrophic event affect their pregnancy? And what can be done to prevent problems before and after such events to minimize potential complications?

Research shows that intense stress during pregnancy can have several repercussions like preterm labor, lower birthweight babies and meconium aspiration during birth (when the baby inhales fluids and its first bowel movement during delivery). A recent study retrospectively reviewed labor and birth outcomes of millions of women living in hurricane prone areas. It concluded that a pregnant woman’s fear of the storm may trigger the release of the stress hormones norepinephrine and cortisol, which can lead to such complications.

The March of Dimes also suggests that in these situations, pregnant women may suffer PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder, which can also significantly increase the likelihood of preterm delivery. The baby’s development can also be affected, leading to neurological and behavioral issues throughout life.

Prior to the baby’s arrival, parents also go through a period of “nesting,” ensuring that the home is ready as a welcoming/safe place for baby. It’s a typically stressful period of time for parents as it is. For expecting mothers who will still be displaced at the time of delivery, stress levels may be exceedingly high.

So how can you mitigate stress during a highly charged event and in the immediate aftermath?

Prenatal Massage. The more you get massaged during pregnancy, the less anxiety and depression you are likely to have. This is because massage reduces the stress inducing hormones norepinephrine and cortisol, and increases the “feel-good” chemicals dopamine and serotonin. In essence, massage can help reverse the effects of high stress levels during pregnancy.

Seek out a Licensed Prenatal Massage Therapist; they know what pressure points to avoid before a pregnant woman reaches full term. If a professional massage is not feasible, a partner, close friend or family member can also help.

Prenatal yoga. Yoga classes focus on using imagery, relaxing breathing techniques, biofeedback and moderate levels of exercise. As a result, the practice has been shown to help reduce stress in pregnant women.

If you can’t get to a class, there are a ton of prenatal yoga programs online and on DVD.

Talk it out. You’re not neurotic. It’s completely normal to have all kinds of questions about your wellness in general in this kind of situation, especially as a pregnant woman. You’ll also need to talk about your emotions in order to work through them.

As much as we love our families and friends, they are usually not well-equipped to provide the level of reassurance you might need. A doula can help guide you through emotional ups and downs and answer concerns as they arise. Doulas are trained professionals who work closely on an ongoing basis with expecting mothers, providing continuous emotional, informational and physical support before and through childbirth. If you find that you are still experiencing high levels of stress or anxiety, talk therapy with a professional therapist is very beneficial.

Meditation. Something you can easily do on your own no matter where you are, is meditate. Meditation helps calm the mind, recenter your thoughts and restore balance. It’s also known for lowering blood pressure. The practice of meditation has immediate benefits that continue after each session.

Try the simplest form of meditation — focusing your attention on something other than your thoughts, thereby allowing the mind to relax and not wander. Focus on your breath, expanding the belly as you draw air in and releasing the stomach as you breathe out. Even focusing on a relaxing picture, a dripping faucet, or other the sounds in your environment, works.

Create the nest, no matter where you are. You can still satisfy the need to establish a space that celebrates the arrival of your baby and creates a sense of stability, even if you’ve been displaced. It doesn’t need to be a big area; babies don’t need much. And remember, they can’t see past a few inches to a foot in front of them at first anyway! Babies have been known to sleep in hammocks, in a basket on a shelf and even in an open drawer during the early stages.

The basics you’ll want to cover include a little diaper changing station, a small bassinet, some clothing, diapers and you. To make the space special, decorate using fabric, perhaps a mobile and other basics. Keep it simple though. Warmth, love, and milk are at the very top, and are what your baby will respond to more than anything.

Try your best to stay calm. Being able to remain calm and positive given the circumstances is essential to reducing stress. Here are some easy ways to shift negative thoughts:

-       Put on music and dance

-       Listen to calming music

-       Close your eyes and listen to the sound of your breath. Focus on taking longer and slower breaths over time.

-       Download a program for guided relaxation specifically geared toward easing anxiety

Feeling prepared and having a back-up plan helps lessen the stress of uncertainty in the lead-up to a potentially catastrophic event, and certainly may prove a saving grace in hindsight. Consider the following list of items to keep in your house, just in case all transportation goes down, your hospital is closed, etc. If you are pregnant, when life stops functioning “as usual,” these action items will help you be better prepared:

-       Have a copy of your prenatal records and several days worth of any medications you take

-       Have a backup plan should you have to give birth at home or at an alternative location to the one you selected:

-       Know where several hospitals in your area are located.

-       Print out this guide, Giving Birth In Place  as a reference, in case you or a loved one need to deliver your baby.

-       Know where your local homebirth midwives are.

We’ve had students in our classes who had to deliver their own babies because they were trapped at home due to snowstorms and other unexpected events. If you’re someone who likes to be prepared for anything, a birth kit is good to have on hand for “just in case.”

So go get a massage already, if you’re a pregnant mom you’ll most certainly benefit from it — catastrophic event not required!

Birth Day Presence provides childbirth education classes and doula services for expecting families and is currently organizing “Sandy Support: Relief for Pregnant Moms”.The initiative connects expectant mothers who were displaced by Sandy with volunteer doulas to provide support. If you are a doula who wants to help or you are a pregnant woman currently living in a home other than your own due to Hurricane Sandy, please email SandyDoulas@gmail.com. The program ends Feb 28, 2013. 

Jada Shapiro, co-Founder of Birth Day Presence, is a DONA trained birth and postpartum doula, certified Lamaze® childbirth educator and Level 1 Birthing From Within Mentor, professional birth photographer, and mother to a 4 year old girl. Her interest in childbirth began while attending and photographing a friend’s birth and has grown steadily ever since. Jada recently served a two-year term as the Co-Director of the Metropolitan Doula Group, which serves as a resource to the doula community within the metropolitan area. She also taught prenatal fitness at Equinox Gyms in Manhattan for Dancing Thru Pregnancy™.