Relaxation during pregnancy has many benefits. It can help to relieve physical, emotional and psychological tension, assist in preparing mind and body for birth, and ultimately support better outcomes for mothers and babies. Relaxation during pregnancy can take many forms, from something as simple as taking time to rest or do something pleasurable, to more structure activities like Yoga. However it is taken though, one common outcome exits – relaxation during pregnancy reduces stress!
Generally speaking most of us realise that while some stress can be good, most stress is bad. It affects our judgement, our health, and our ability to cope effectively with challenging situations. In many instances stress can make a difficult situation worse, and even when an issue is resolved the stress experienced can leave us feeling overwhelmed and depleted.
The sad truth is that for many people, life in the 21st century is stressful. With dual working families, single parenthood, a compromised economy, geographically dispersed families and friends, and high levels of competition in the workforce, the demands upon us of employment, home, parenting, family and friends can be massive. This can lead to chronic stress.
During pregnancy the female body goes through profound changes to support the growing foetus. In addition to this physical strain, pregnancy can bring with it its fair share of emotional and psychological pressure. Concerns and worries about pregnancy and birth complications, coping financially, maintaining relationships and being a good parent can add significant stress to pregnancy. For all these reasons, relaxation during pregnancy is essential for the wellbeing of both mother and baby.
The effects of maternal stress on developing babies has been a topic of study for some time now. While we don’t fully understand exactly how chronic maternal stress contributes to foetal development and adverse obstetric outcomes, we know that it does. We also know that while pharmaceutical solutions might be offered outside of pregnancy, increasingly women are reluctant to take medications during pregnancy. There is an increasing body of research which suggests that relaxation during pregnancy can have a significant effect in promoting sound foetal development and reducing adverse obstetric outcomes, and not just for those women experiencing chronic stress.
In pregnancy women experience vast hormonal changes from their non-pregnant state. When experiencing acute or chronic stress, cortisol levels rise which has been associated with negative obstetric and neonatal outcomes. Eliminating stressful factors, wherever possible, and actively seeking out activities that are relaxing can significantly decrease cortisol levels. Research has shown a single relaxation exercise of around 20 minutes a day, or the same time spent simply resting quietly and calmly can signiﬁcantly reduction cortisol levels. Massage in particular, both professional and nonprofessional, has been shown to increase serotonin/dopamine levels and decrease cortisol levels.
The effects of relaxation during pregnancy on the psychological state of pregnant women has also been examined, especially those experiencing anxiety or depression. It has been consistently found that the psychological wellbeing of pregnant women improves when they regularly engage in relaxation during pregnancy. This is particularly so for women who participate in regular, structured relaxation exercises, such as pregnancy yoga. These types of activities can be performed at home with an instructional DVD, making them more achievable for some women. However increased benefits to women have been seen in group relaxation sessions, perhaps because of the opportunity to socialise and gain support from other pregnant women that group sessions offer.
Physically speaking pregnant women who engage in regular relaxation, especially that led by a trained instructor whether in a group or individually, demonstrate lower heart rates and blood pressure, and a lower incidence of gestational hypertension. They also demonstrate a reduction in heart rate variability, or simply put a more regular, stable heart rhythm.
While relaxation during pregnancy has been shown to have a positive impact on women and babies, a direct correlation between types of relaxation and particular outcome improvements has proved difficult to define. While all relaxation is good, research seems to show that certain types of relaxation techniques are more effective in reducing adverse outcomes for women and babies than others. For instance, massage therapy, hypnotic relaxation and breathing/tension release exercises seem to have a greater impact on reducing premature labour and birth than yoga.
That said, engaging in regular pregnancy yoga sessions has been linked to a lower rate of instrumental delivery and shorter labours. However generally speaking pregnancy outcomes seem to improve overall when relaxation during pregnancy is integrated as an integral part of the day. This is seen in less hospital admissions during pregnancy, fewer obstetric complications, longer gestations with reduced prematurity, less pain during labour, lower rates of caesarean and instrumental deliveries and fewer postpartum complications in women who make relaxation during pregnancy a priority.
There is still a great deal of conjecture on the direct impact on unborn babies of relaxation during pregnancy. However obvious connections can be made, including a reduction in prematurity creating a greater chance of neonate survival. There are also the less quantifiable benefits to babies of shorter labours and less interventions which have been shown to result in less foetal distress, a lower incidence of birth trauma, more solid mother-infant bonding, and greater breastfeeding success.
More research is required, but there are clear connections between relaxation during pregnancy, reduced stress and increased positive outcomes for mothers and babies. On this basis it is fair to say that most pregnant women, whether experiencing chronic stress or the daily stresses of life, can benefit from relaxation during pregnancy. It is important to remember though to consult your doctor or midwife prior to taking up a new activity and to seek out pregnancy-specific classes, practitioners or instructional material to better ensure your safety and that of your baby.