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Stressful World Events Can Affect Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Infant Health


For immediate release
Date:    2003

"War is not healthy for children and other living things," goes a favorite slogan. Now, researchers also know that war - or war news - may also not be healthy for the unborn.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, prolonged stress from world events can increase the rate of miscarriage, premature births and low birth weight babies in pregnant women. It may also have an adverse effect on infant brain development.

For pregnant women faced with the additional burdens of poverty, homelessness, unintended pregnancy, physical abuse, or drug or alcohol addiction, stress can be an even greater risk.

Dr. Kathryn Barnard, director of a new center at the University of Washington that works with vulnerable populations of pregnant women in order to improve their health and the health of their newborns, has a simple solution to reducing the harmful effects of stress during pregnancy - exercise.

"Less than 45% of the women in the State of Washington's First Steps program exercise," says Barnard, a nurse researcher and expert on infant development. "Besides making women feel better during pregnancy, regular exercise can actually reduce the risk of premature labor and the birth of a very small baby. Exercise has a profound effect on parts of the brain that control mood."

Barnard and other experts at the Center on Infant Mental Health cite new research about the benefits of exercise for all pregnant women, unless they are experiencing special complications. Whether they are competitive athletes or just starting a training program, every healthy woman can and should exercise throughout her pregnancy as long as she monitors herself and talks frequently with her care provider. This is a different approach to pregnancy than in the past, says Barnard.

"Forget what your mother might have told you about the need to avoid strenuous activity when you are pregnant," she advises. Regular exercise is now linked to shorter, less complicated labors and faster recovery. It also has been shown to increase energy levels and increase positive attitudes about pregnancy and delivery. In fact, says Barnard, if you are planning to get pregnant, start exercising now.

Perhaps most important, however, is the effect of exercise on the developing infant. "Recent research shows that babies born to mothers who exercised throughout their pregnancies tend to be stronger, leaner and more alert. They have less trouble transitioning to life outside the uterus and tend to be easier to care for. Sound and vibration stimuli before birth may also accelerate the development of the baby's brain," says Barnard.

How much exercise is needed to achieve these benefits? A combination of stretching, walking and weight resistance for 30 minutes three times a week may be enough. In addition to being an effective antidote to stress, regular exercise during pregnancy can reduce weight gain and relieve such common discomforts as backache, fatigue and constipation.


The University of Washington School of Nursing is consistently the nation’s No. 1-ranked nursing school, according to U.S. News & World Report. Ranked No. 3 in research funding from the National Institutes of Health, the UW School of Nursing is a national and international leader in improving the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities. The school addresses society’s most pressing challenges in health care through innovative teaching, award winning research and community service.