Holly A. Lammer, RNC-OB C-EFM
“The history of man for the nine months preceding his birth would probably be far more interesting and contain events of greater moment than for all the three score and ten years that follow it.”
~Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Decreasing the amount of stress that we encounter daily is beneficial to our health. Stress initiates the body’s ‘emergency response system’ which activates the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol is important for energy (glucose metabolism), blood pressure regulation, immune function and inflammatory response, but is secreted in higher levels during increased stress. Heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, chronic inflammatory disorders, mental health issues, obesity can all in some way be linked to how the chemicals of stress wreak havoc on our bodies. Statistics paint a grim picture:
- Preterm birth in the U.S. is higher than in other developed countries (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2015).
- Stress is associated with an increased chance of preterm birth (PLos One, 2012)
- High rates of anxiety and depression, according to WHO, the U.S. has one of the highest rate of mental disorders of any other developed country. (U.S. News, 2016)
- High rates of obesity – females affected more than males (World Obesity, 2017)
- Immune and allergy disorders, chronic diseases have increased drastically in the last few decades (overwhelming majority affecting women)(Molecular Metabolism, 2016)
One concern is how these chemicals affect a woman and her growing fetus during pregnancy. Many pregnant women are exposed to chronic stress; examples are the stress of jobs, finances, family responsibilities, the expectation and drive for success, high fat and low nutrient diets, lack of time for physical activity, lack of community and family support, intimate partner violence, effects of racism and social marginalization. Stress chemicals can pass to the developing baby through the placenta.
Watering the Seeds of Peace:
But pregnant women can seek to balance and reduce their stress in order to pass on positive neurological chemicals to their babies. In particular, mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation have profound impacts on the human brain and, when practiced in the prenatal period, can also influence the growing brain of the fetus. (PLos One, 2012)These types of practices produce changes in the neural pathways and hormonal centers that support parasympathetic response and as these neural connections are strengthened, sympathetic hypersensitivity is decreased. Mindfulness has the potential to reduce the effect of stress chemicals in the body (Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic and Neonatal Nursing, 2009) since these chemicals are being sent directly to the fetus, through the placenta.
Mindfulness may also reduce the effects of stress chemicals in the baby. Research shows increases in gray matter concentration in the left hippocampus, which affects learning, memory, and emotional control. Infants born of mothers who practice meditation have been shown to have better self-regulation and more emotional control. (Infant Behavior and Development, 2014)
Practicing mindfulness on a regular basis can also “create change in the brain that support feelings of peace, contentment, self-confidence and joy. As these connections in the brain are strengthened, states of anxiety, worry and anger are decreased. Consequently, incidence and severity of stress related conditions are decreased and may, at the very least, become easier to manage. Mindfulness practice has been shown to decrease anxiety, depression, insomnia, hyperactivity, substance abuse and chemical dependency. It can also increase bonding and connection to others.
Preparation for Birth
In addition to all the above mentioned benefits, mindfulness has the added benefit of decreasing sensation of chronic and acute pain and possible subsequent psychological distress caused by pain. This effect has been correlated to altered function and structure in somatosensory areas and an increased ability to disengage regions in the brain associated with the cognitive appraisal of pain, basically ‘reframing’ the sensation. Most childbirth methods are based on meditative techniques (Lamaze and Bradley breathing, Hypnobirthing, etc.) Mindfulness practices also enhance immune function – extremely important in pregnancy where it is already suppressed. If there is a complication that is present (obesity, immune disorder, mental illness) or one that is diagnosed during the pregnancy (gestational diabetes, hypertension, multiples) or that happens during birth (prolonged labor, surgical intervention), regular meditative practices can help prime the immune system so that the effects of these events may be milder.
It’s as simple as ‘ABC’
One of the great things about mindfulness is that it can be practiced literally anytime, anywhere.
A is for Awareness: Simply pause or stop and become AWARE of the present moment. An easy way to do this is just notice the body in space… the arrangement of the legs or arms, the overall tone in the body… the sensations in the body. Use the senses to drive your awareness: the feel of the coffee cup in your hand, the sound of a bird chirping or the rain on the roof, the warmth of the sun on your skin.
B is for Breathing: Bring your awareness to your breath. The breath is always present. Notice the inhalation and the exhalation. Just by noticing the breath without changing it in any way, nervous system shifts to parasympathetic activity. You can enhance this shift by guiding the breath to be longer and deeper. Regulating the breath in this way also decreases blood pressure and heart rate. Imagine your breath bringing oxygen to your growing baby. Imagine your baby listening to your deep rhythmic breaths and the slowing of your heart beat. Calm, serene.
C is for Consciousness: Or ‘thinking’. Now you have the space in the nervous system to examine your thoughts. Notice that they come and go like clouds on a windy day. If there is a particular thought or sensation that is troubling you or seems uncomfortable, you have the ability to CHOOSE your reaction instead of unconsciously reacting with habitual patterns of response.
When we practice in this way, even for a few minutes a day, our nervous system slowly begins to rewire and connections of peace and joy are strengthened. In the pregnant mom, this benefit is wiring the baby’s brain from the very beginning of development.
Helpful Resources and Links
- Antenatal mindfulness intervention to reduce depression, anxiety and stress
- Fit Pregnancy: 5 Prenatal Meditation Techniques
- Impact of stress and stress physiology during pregnancy on child metabolic function and obesity risk
- Incidence and prevalence of chronic disease
- Mindful Birthing
- Prenatal meditation influences infant behaviors
- Relaxation Response and Resiliency Training and Its Effect on Healthcare Resource Utilization
- The Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health
- The effects of mindfulness-based yoga during pregnancy on maternal psychological and physical distress.
Holly Lammer is an Obstetric Nurse, Clinical Educator and Childbirth Instructor for St. Luke’s Health System based in Boise, ID. In addition to teaching credentialed courses through AWHONN and AHA, she develops and teaches curriculum for prenatal and perinatal specialty courses offered in the St. Luke’s system. Holly is also registered with the Yoga Alliance as a 500-hr Yoga Instructor and on faculty as a Prenatal Yoga Teacher Training Instructor. She is certified in Inpatient Obstetrics and Electronic Fetal Monitoring through NCC and is in process of obtaining her Pre and Perinatal Psychology Educator through the Association for Pre and Perinatal Psychology and Health.
Holly has blended her experience in high volume high risk inpatient setting with her training and research in mind-body therapies to form unique educational programs for pregnant women and the providers that care for them, including Intuitive Birth – the area’s only Mindfulness-Based Childbirth Education series. A driving force for patient centered, evidence-based practice, her passion is apparent in her program content and her ability to drive changes at the policy level to improve outcomes for women and babies.
Holly has spoken regularly at multidisciplinary local and regional conferences on the subjects of physiologic birth, prenatal psychology and health, and mindfulness-based strategies to improve health. In addition, she provides regular educational opportunities for the public and for inpatients and care providers in her community.