Pregnancy is often considered a joyous and exciting time. But sometimes life has other plans. Death, natural disasters, and other changes can lead to grief or trauma at any stage of life. Grief can be an unwelcome visitor in a time often filled with anticipation. It also comes with a long list of symptoms that tend to be unpleasant.
It is normal to worry about how grief may affect pregnancy. Here are some things to consider if you find yourself grieving during these crucial nine months.
Grief and Mental Health During Pregnancy
Grief is not the same as depression, but the two can share some symptoms. A person affected by grief during pregnancy may have a different experience than someone working through a mental health issue like depression. This article specifically addresses grief. But is it important to be able to distinguish between the effects of each condition. There are different approaches to managing grief and depression. Pinpointing what you experience may better help you address it:
- Depression and similar mental health issues are often long-term. They do not always have a single cause. Professional treatment may be required to mitigate their effects.
- Grief is a period of intense sorrow or mourning. It may last for a shorter period, although this is not always the case. Usually, it occurs after a specific and sometimes traumatic life event. Grief can act in much the same way as other stressors. These stressors can trigger physical symptoms that may affect pregnancy.
Causes of Grief During Pregnancy
Miscarriage may come to mind when the topics of pregnancy and grief are discussed. This life event is indeed a source of grief worth acknowledging. But it is not the only reason for someone to experience grief during a pregnancy. Some sources of grief may have nothing to do with the pregnancy and still affect it.
Other causes of grief can include:
- Death of a close relative, sibling, partner, or child
- Divorce or breakup
- Lack of shelter or poverty
Health complications for the mother or child during pregnancy can also cause grief. Any of these can effect physical symptoms that could impact a pregnancy. These life events may start a shock reaction in the body. Shock can affect pregnancy in a way similar to grief or stress.
How Grief Affects Pregnancy
Grief can affect pregnancy through its impact on hormone balance and production. Pregnancy already has an effect on hormones. When pregnancy and grief take place at the same time, hormonal changes may have more extreme effects.
The impact of grief can be varied, but there are some common patterns. Grief can cause an imbalance in serotonin production. It also raises the body’s cortisol, or stress hormone, levels. Fetuses can be susceptible to these changes. Disruptions in regular chemical production may have effects that last throughout a pregnancy. In extreme cases, these effects may impact the child’s life later on.
Grief can also worsen symptoms that typically come with pregnancy. These could include aches and pains, sleep issues, and digestive problems. Combined with a sudden loss, these symptoms may become more intense. If you are worried about any these symptoms, consult your health care provider.
Potential Risks of Grief During Pregnancy
Some symptoms of grief may increase certain risks associated with pregnancy. Most of these risks only occur if the grief is severe. Some of these risks include:
- Developmental delays. Some research suggests that stress during pregnancy could cause developmental delays for the child. This may be the case primarily for intense stress, or grief caused by losing a loved one suddenly. One study showed that pregnant mothers who lost a parent were at a higher risk for having a caesarean. Their babies were also found to be slightly smaller in weight. The weight difference was more likely to impact males than females.
- Future mental health issues. Fetal programming is a term for how the environment outside the womb can affect a fetus. This can have a long-lasting impact on how a child develops later in life. A period of intense grief in pregnancy may translate to a greater chance of neurodevelopment issues for the child. These issues could include anxiety, ADHD, and impacts on cognitive function.
- Increased likelihood of stillbirth. A 2013 study found those who had experienced five or more stressful life events within the year were more likely to experience a stillbirth. Both a high level of severity and frequency of stressful events were required to influence a stillbirth.
These risks may sound scary, but they are still relatively uncommon. There are also many ways to reduce the effects of grief. Learning to manage grief in healthy ways while honoring the grieving period may help. Good coping strategies can reduce the effects of grief on a pregnancy.
Can Grief Be a Positive Influence?
Grief does not only increase the risks of pregnancy. A little stress may actually promote a positive outcome. A 2006 study found that mothers who reported stress or symptoms of grief during pregnancy had children with more advanced motor skills and development. The sample population for this study was small and focused on low-risk pregnancies. Deep or sudden grief brought on by a series of traumatic events did not factor into this study.
Studies like these may still provide hope for those going through grief and pregnancy at the same time. Keeping up with medical appointments, working with a therapist, and using healthy skills to cope with grief may prove beneficial. Doing these things can continue to increase a child’s chances for a healthy and happy future.
How to Cope with Grief During Pregnancy
One of the best ways to maintain a healthy pregnancy during the grief period is to care for oneself. Reach out to your support network and practice regular self-care. These habits can help reduce stress and bring comfort when feelings of grief are intense. They may also provide a nurturing environment for the baby throughout the pregnancy.
Some methods of coping with grief during pregnancy include:
- Seeing a licensed therapist
- Attending couples counseling with a partner
- Talking with trusted friends
- Taking a relaxing bath or nap
- Practicing gratitude, journaling, or meditation
- Listening to music that makes you feel good
- Telling the baby stories about your loved ones
- Taking walks with your partner or a friend
There is one thing it may help to avoid if you are grieving and pregnant: worry. Obsessing over whether grief may affect a pregnancy is likely to cause further stress. Increased stress may worsen symptoms and make pregnancy more difficult. If you are struggling with feelings of grief or stress during pregnancy, talking to a therapist or counselor can help. They can teach you skills to manage grief and address any anxiety you may experience about your pregnancy.
Practicing self-care may facilitate a healthy pregnancy whether grief is present or not. It is not necessary or even natural to feel gleefully happy throughout an entire pregnancy. But managing strong or negative emotions may lead to less stress and more balance.
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- Glover, V. (2011). The effects of prenatal stress on child behavioural and cognitive outcomes start at the beginning. Retrieved from http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/stress-and-pregnancy-prenatal-and-perinatal/according-experts/effects-prenatal-stress-child
- Oberlander, T. F. (2012). Fetal serotonin signaling: Setting pathways for early childhood development and behavior. Journal of Adolescent Health, 2(51), S9-S16. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2012.04.009
- Rettner, R. (2013, March 27). Stress in pregnancy boosts stillbirth risk. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/28229-pregnancy-stress-stillbirth.html
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