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Here we come to the last episode of this series about stress. As a new parent, you might have felt overwhelmed with emotion..  marveled at your emotional reactions, and maybe, you even felt bad about it. Because feeling sad is not very sexy in a world that wants us smiling and full of energy all the time. Let's try to cast some light on stress in pregnancy and postpartum depression - so as not to feel "wrong" for our vulnerability.

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Photo: Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

It was a dark and stormy evening.

One night four years ago, my husband and I had a heated argument. Like all couples made of opposites, we were in one of those phases where differences made us fly away from each other. And I was pregnant.

Since I'm a predominantly emotional person, I chose to follow the impulsiveness of "making each other feel guilty", and I left slamming the door.

Dishevelled, with a big belly, in slippers and nightgown, what a sight I was, wandering around the condominium garden while crying noisily. I still remember the deep pain, made even more acute by the guilt for the little baby in my belly.

"I'm sorry I'm not offering you the ideal conditions to come into the world" I sobbed.

I put a little bit of a drama, I admit. But I was afraid, however absurd it may sound now, that my tears and anguish might hurt the child. (Obviously thus distressing me even more.)

Don't they tell you to be as quiet as possible during pregnancy? To surround yourself with love and affection and softness, because pregnancy's a delicate period?

The duty to feel happy

Let's move on a few months. Here he is, my baby boy. Healthy and perfect. I'm so happy to welcome him.

Still, tears lurk. I feel the bubble of my pain set aside rolling here and there, between my stomach and my throat.

"You must be happy for your children"

"It's hormones. It's just hormones.

So, as soon as someone sees me, I put a smile on my face, because hey, you're having the best moments of your life! You don't want to give in to sadness! What if you get postnatal depression?

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Photo: Kewei Hu on Unsplash

It's time to learn

Don't think I was sad all the time, on the contrary: I was enthusiastic, full of energy - and very tired at the same time, like any mom juggling work, young children and husband; an acrobat looking for a balance that won't precipitate her into the void.

Because those months between pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding are wonderful, of course; but of an intensity that overwhelms and leaves you stunned, frazzled and lonely like a shipwreck.

You dress up with expectations, you want to live up to that creature that was given to you. And it's hard to conceive, in our binary world, that one can be over the moon and emotionally shocked at the same time.

Fast-forward to a few years later. I've survived. And I wanted to see clearer.

  • Does stress really hurt in pregnancy? Do we really have to be careful and live in an enchanted bubble?

  • And what happens after childbirth? How can we accept the upheaval, while remaining attentive and available to our children?

  • What is the role of fathers in all this?

What happens to the fetus in case of stress in pregnancy

If I could speak to myself that night, I'd say,

"Don't worry. It's not stress or the occasional crying the problem. You're doing your best."

Especially women : we tend to overload ourselves with guilt. We think we need that unattainable perfection to feel legitimate.

The goal of this article is NOT to provide an additional source of anxiety.

On the contrary: on the one hand, it's to get a better understanding of what happens in order to act in awareness; on the other hand, to spread how NORMAL it is to feel certain emotions, which have nothing negative in themselves.

By the way, it's not yet clear how stress and anxiety in pregnancy are related with the fetus' development.

So far, a relationship has been identified between strong levels of stress and emotional and behavioral development of infants and children.

(for example:

  • a more "difficult" temperament;
  • problems falling asleep;
  • a tendency to be fearful).

The reason why we still don't know exactly how this happens, is that so far, the experiments have been done mainly on animals. Let's say, mice under a level of stress that I hope we will hardly ever have to experience in our life.

Among the hypotheses, there are:

  • lower blood pressure to the placenta

  • contact with cortisol that in some cases would be able to penetrate the placenta

  • exposure to serotonin

In case of extreme stress (such as physical violence and abuse), cortisol can cause genetic changes in the fetus.

Stress in pregnancy: is it always bad?

As seen in previous articles, a certain level of stress is not harmful at all, on the contrary: it acts as a stimulant!

And to dispel a further myth, I think it's worth remembering that about 20% of women suffer from anxiety and/or depression in pregnancy - for different reasons that may -or may not- be related to pregnancy-related factors.

In any case, it's not rare ! Even less so if instead of falling into a "pathological" case we are subject to more or less intense mood swings.

There is certainly a link between the mother's emotional experience and the fetus'; but it is unthinkable, absurd and even harmful to shy away from any "negative" emotion and to live constantly in joy and good humor.

Dads and their influence on stress in pregnancy

Fathers' role is fundamental, although indirect :

  • Indirect because there is no physical link between his emotional experience and that of the baby;

  • because it affects the emotional state of the mother.

What happens to men during pregnancy?

Physical changes (yes!):

Emotional changes :

  • reflection on the relationship with one's father

  • jealousy of the place taken by the newcomer in the life of his partner

  • non-acceptance of physical changes in the mother's body

  • feeling overwhelmed by the new responsibilities

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Dads' Role - Photo by Tina Bo on Unsplash

Mental images and a relationship that is created : from the beginning of pregnancy

Do you remember when you started feeling the baby move the first time?

I remember so well the day I realized that the rhythmic movement I felt from time to time was hiccups. Amazing!

Just then, mom and dad begin to form a mental image, or representation, of their child.

And no, they're not crazy, actually!

This image, although "fictional", is very important : it constitutes the first deep bond between parent and child.

It is also important because it seems stable over time (say up to 12 months of the baby); that means, it allows to detect potential problems in the very first parent-child relationship, as well as attachment's type and bond between the newborn and her parents.

Not only that: it's while building this "mental projection" that the mother, often unconsciously, reevaluates her relationship with her own mother; and that's where all the unresolved issues in childhood can emerge.

Pregnancy stress and postpartum depression : is there a link?

Is it possible to establish a link between stress in pregnancy (in the form of strong pressures and changes) and postpartum depression? Partly.

Again, it's the level of stress that counts. Some research has shown a correlation between strong levels of stress and postnatal depression. But we are mainly talking about serious situations: violence, abuse, trauma.

Three considerations:

  1. Yes, if you find yourself in such a difficult situation, it is important to ask for help.

  2. No, you don't need to overload yourself with anxiety if you happen to cry or quarrel with someone once in a while.

  3. Anyway, there's nothing wrong with you.

Postpartum depression can have several possible causes, the topic deserves to be covered in a separate article.

What I would like to point out is that all women after childbirth go through a strong hormonal change, with the imbalances that follow:

  • you'll be crying suddenly and for no apparent reason.

  • sometimes you will feel alone and misunderstood.

If it happens to you, don't be ashamed of it. Cry if you have to cry. Look for support.

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Slowly, everything is fixed. Photo: Steve Shreve on Unsplash

What happens next? Post-breastfeeding depression

Have you ever heard of it? At that time, I hadn't.

I had decided to continue breastfeeding even after going back to work, until it became too tiring, and I hadn't enough milk. Around me, I could feel that family, friends.. expected me to wean my baby. He was 9 months old.

During the last feedings, I cried. I didn't want it to be the last time. The bubble was tightening my throat, again.

Some time later, I stumbled upon an article about post-breastfeeding depression.

I cried as I read about the inexplicably dark months that the author, an American journalist, described so well. (You can read it here)

It took a weight off my shoulders.

Because I thought there was something wrong with me. I wasn't clinically depressed, let's be clear; but I often had mood swings and a feeling of sadness mixed with tiredness that accompanied me at all times.

And I stopped feeling guilty.

Guess what? When you stop breastfeeding, the level of two hormones suddenly drops: oxytocin and prolactin, which are the hormones that make breastfeeding work. They are also the hormones connected to feelings of well-being and energy.

Time for our body to adapt, and everything is back to normal.

 Don't feel weird, wrong, nor flawed. First of all, because it's not true. Secondly, because these thoughts isolate you. Don't deny what you're feeling, don't judge yourself. Your world needs you.

The stress series

Here we are at the last episode of the series dedicated to stress! Let me know if this post was useful to you, and share !

Sources and references

Note : the readings I mention here include mainly the books that I used to write this article, which I loved reading, or sometimes that I still haven't personally read but were suggested to me and are on my wish-list. The links to Amazon (UK or US) are affiliates: it means that if you click and decide to make a purchase, I perceive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

  • It is from this book that I have taken most of the information for the latest articles: "Why love matters" by Sue Gerhardt talks about the link between relationships and brain development, with real life examples as to the possible consequences. (Here's the US edition)

  • This is an indispensable guide : "The Psychology of Babies" is full of pictures illustrating how to interact with children and accompany them in their first development, in delicate stages such as teaching them to fall asleep, leaving them for the first time in childcare, and so on; all with a light tone, not guilty but informative. For me, a rare pearl that unfortunately I discovered "late". (Here's the US edition)

  • An indispensable reading to counter-balance the "pessimistic" thesis on stress: "The Upside of Stress" by Kelly McGonigal (Here's the US edition)

  • Finally, "Parenting from the Inside-out" by Daniel J. Siegel leads to a work of "self-analysis" on the link between our own history and that of our children. (Here's the US edition)

Why should we talk about stress for newborns? Even if you're not pregnant and maybe your kid is now a teen? For the third episode of this series about stress, I'm particularly keen to start from the beginning. Because even babies get stressed (and a lot); and the way we support them determines the formation of the fundamental mental structures that will help them face life even as adults. This is stuff that's worth learning, and spreading to future generations!

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Birth, after all, is a stressful event. Photo by Javier de la Maza on Unsplash

Why talking about stress for newborns and babies?

I didn't know anything of what I'm about to write today when I first became a mom.

I was happy and naive, convinced that I would make my mistakes in the best possible way.

My instinct suggested me how to react; but then there were many other voices that rose louder:

"You're going to spoil her!"; "You don't want her to get used to it?" "You're too good/ too patient / miscellaneous."

And then, tiredness; sometimes, the loneliness of misunderstanding.

I hope I didn't do any serious damage, but at the same time I keep telling myself: "If only I had known before!"

So, future babies, moms, you dads who have such an important role but you don't always know. These lines are for you.

If you're thinking that this doesn't concern you, and you're going to click elsewhere (because I know that time is short and precious, and the attention span on the internet lasts a few seconds). Hold on.

Who you are today depends at least in part on those first few months with your parents.

#1: Parents form their babies' brains

At birth, a newborn's brain has about 100 billion neurons. And this is just the beginning.

...continue reading "Why talking about stress for newborns matters more than you think"

"You can't afford to make mistakes"; "If you don't put a lot of effort, you'll never be able to do anything" and also "Stop wasting your time!" What do these sentences have in common? And what does they have to do with toxic stress and high cortisol? We might be living with these recorded messages and the related chronic stress for so long, that we don't see them any more. We don't connect them to when we forget for the umpteenth time the keys inside the door of the house; to when we cry because we missed the bus; Or when we get breathless after another loud NO! from our 3-year-old boy. Can you find the resources you need to get better within yourself? Spot on high cortisol and toxic stress, and on one of the ways we secretly cultivate them..

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Our system is not made to hold a high level of cortisol for a long time... Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Toxic stress, me? Nope

A few years ago I found myself in a vortex. One of those times when everything goes fast, and you seem to have everything under control. In fact, you're pretty excited: "Look how well I can manage this challenge, and all the change! I'm a superhero!" (Ah no, that's my son's excuse).

My husband had started a new job abroad, and I was alone with two small children, working full time. At work we were launching a new project, in which I wanted to give the best-because I was beginning to feel cramped in the marginal role I had.

I didn't want to show my fatigue nor give in. So, I kept doing sports, organizing weekend trips, seeing friends.. Without noticing that I was neglecting myself. That I wasn't sleeping enough. I was not resting, I was eating too little. The race was such that I didn't even have time to notice the signals.

Then, a colleague of mine suddenly stopped coming to the office. Burn-out. We examined her case. What happened? And yet I could not connect her symptoms to mine. I often got sick, sore throat that left me without a voice but enough strength to come to work. Furthermore, I lost patience so easily, I was susceptible. As if nothing would make me laugh any more.

I had to write my schedule, or I risked forgetting everything after a few minutes. I, who have an iron memory and register the agenda in my head.
Now, at a distance of time, it all seems so obvious!

Effects of high cortisol and toxic stress in our brain

Toxic stress. How come? What was going on?

...continue reading "5 sentences you must stop repeating yourself to fight toxic stress!"

We might be living with a stranger. We talk about it all the time. We fight it, we shun it, but unconsciously seek it; and yet, it shapes us, it makes us succeed, sometimes it makes us sick. Do we really know what stress is? And how does it affect our brain and the rest of our body? And above all.. How does it affect the way we interact with our children, and their growth? A mini-series to drop some prejudice and better understand how  stress is a part of our lives - from pregnancy to birth and to adulthood.

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Photo by George Pagan III on Unsplash

Stress, this unknown beast 

If I say "stress", you immediately think about working deadlines, sleepless nights, getting stuck in traffic just before an important appointment.

And then, the derived diseases, the tiredness, the evils of our times.

Almost no one thinks a baby can be stressed out, right? Much less a newborn. Or that you can be too little stressed. And yet..

...continue reading "What is Stress? 6 Must-Know Facts a Parent can’t ignore"

You hate milk, but your child keeps insisting that you should drink it with her, because she adores it. Until your slight irritation. Then she cries, but she can't explain why... And you lose your patience. When do children begin to know how to talk about themselves, and understand that others can have different ideas and perceptions? Knowing the stages of your child's social development, and in particular the theory of mind, can help you to improve your relationship with your children. Let's see how!

Theory of mind Index
The unfathomable mysteries of our minds ..

Photo by: Billy Huynh

Social development : from me to you

I was waiting anxiously for the moment when my daughter would have been able to express her imagination, her certainties; and explain me the reason of her despair without having to enumerate infinite inconclusive hypotheses. (Because usually the answer was the only obvious thing I hadn't thought of).

You know, those times you're serenely playing together, with so many smiles. You get distracted 30 seconds for any reason, until desperate screams don't make you turn abruptly: what could possibly have happened? Honey, what is it? But in response, you only get louder cries.

You try to hug your creature, but she rejects you.. Nothing, you have to try to understand. Did you get hurt? You lost the game? Is it because I went to the kitchen for a moment to get a drink leaving you alone? Men probably feel that way when women respond "Nothing" to the question "What is it?".

Theory of mind Development children
What is it?

But is it so obvious that the use of words coincides with the ability to talk about oneself? To understand and verbalize needs and desires, and inferences on the emotions of others? Are the two learnings figuratively like the bearing poles of a ladder, independent but interconnected, or do they need further support?

In other words: how do I explain to my son that if he doesn't tell me what's wrong, I can't help him and he will continue to cry unnecessarily?

And when will he understand that in the morning I need to leave the house on time and for me it is not important if he sits on the right or on left in the trailer of our bike, as long as we hurry?

...continue reading "8 truly interesting things you should know about your child’s social development"

Have you ever noticed that when you have a baby in your arms, she starts to flicker as soon as you are a little tense? And that generally, smiling at him tenderly has a soothing effect? Have you ever been so tired, and ended with thinking unconsciously that your baby was crying on purpose to annoy you? Would that be possible? Let's see what's going on in the baby's brain, and how we can help it grow!

baby's brain and emotional transfer
baby's brain and emotional transfer

Baby's brain is a sponge

When I became a mother, I was at first puzzled to realize that my tiny baby was so permeable to my emotional states. When I was cool and relaxed and happy, she was the easiest company; whenever I felt tired, distressed, tensed or nervous, well, things weren't that simple then.

She would cry or want me more, making sometimes my tension longer to dissolve. At that time, I was still miles away from all the readings and discoveries I've done ever since. I was just exploring a new dimension of the world, and of myself.

Because of my doing 3 things at once, I used to move fast, to run; therefore clumsily dropping things, hurting things on my way, making noises...

Well, rough and noisy wasn't that good for a new born, I'd found out. She would freak out at sudden loud noises; her body would "jump up", from a state of calmness to one of alert.

I started to pay attention to subtleties, to the tone of my voice, to how I moved. Songs were great, as they kept me quiet, and cuddled her at the same time.

I had her on me most of the times, in my arms or in a baby carrier, so we were in constant physical contact. She could so easily sense the variations of my breathing speed, and I had to better manage myself.

It was a very happy period for me, so it wasn't that difficult per se; but I was amazed at how I could keep her calm just by being calm and happy myself.

...continue reading "Baby’s brain, and us. How our emotions have a role on baby’s brain development"

When we lose our temper with our children, our first automatic reaction is raising our voice, maybe a light spank... What if the solution was give them cuddles and snuggling them?! If it seems counter-intuitive to use cuddles in order to stop undesirable behavior, read along! You could change your mind.. and cuddles science could really help you. 

cuddles
Cuddles help

Small frustrations get bigger

Let's picture a typical evening at home.
I just went grocery shopping with the children, before heading home, exhausted after a long day. I had agree I would call my sister and my parents, who live far away, on a Whatsapp video to tell them about our latest week.

The children were happy at first, then got easily annoyed for my lack of availability for them. As soon as I started to talk about "more serious" topics, they followed me everywhere interrupting me every two and a half words.

First time, I stayed calm and gently asked to wait and don't intervene. I got mad at about the tenth time, but as I now know this behavior very well, I got the clue and quickly ended the call.

My quizzical look said "How do I get to prepare dinner now that the children just emptied their "reservoir" and need me again?"

So, I tried with the "aperitif technique". I called the children by the kitchen table, and offered them to have a pre-dinner snack while I was getting the dinner ready, so that we could be in proximity; yes, I was really hoping that some food could replace my mental presence.

Cuddles' need - underestimated symptoms

...continue reading "Cuddles, that’s it! Snuggling as a crisis solution"

2

You've probably wondered at least once in your life as a parent.. why my kids cry whenever I leave ! Even when it's just for a short time? Even when they're having fun? Attachment theory can help us understand this. Can it maybe help us feeling less guilty? 

Why my kids cry whenever I leave and feeling guilty
Don't cry, I'll be right there!

DISCLAIMER: I've learnt from different sources, but one of the most significant and richest was the online course that Edx provides on Developmental Psychology that I followed. I did not directly take material from this course, I only took notes and memorized the contents. If you're interested, I highly recommend this course, it's very interesting. 

The perfect mother doesn't exist, however...

I don't know if it's because I'm woman, or because I had a Catholic education, or if it's just my temperament, but guilt is a recurring sensation in my life. It is even more so since I've become a mother. Perhaps I see myself in my children, I relive my childhood in them.. And my expectations on which mother I'd like to be are (maybe) too high. The feeling of being inadequate, is just around the corner.

One of the most difficult moments for me is bringing my children to school. I turn around quick and leave while they cry out desperately because they want to be with me.

I know that they will stop thirty seconds later, but.. And I know that they have fun, and learn a lot at school. And I also believe that having an activity of my own is essential for my mental balance (and therefore also for theirs) !

Bad mother. Why don't you keep them at home with you? Or don't you do more things together? And why did you scold them this morning when you came to school?

The nursery school they attend at the moment is great, they ask me to go there on weekends, sometimes they don't even want to come back home when I pick them up.. and yet in the morning they cling to me and cry.

And so I ask.. why my kids cry whenever I leave, but not when it's daddy who takes them?! And why sometimes I can't even go to the toilets for 5 minutes? or leave on errands for an hour?  ...continue reading "Why my kids cry whenever I leave.. Attachment theory"

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