WASHINGTON — Dealing with anxiety during pregnancy can increase the risk of experiencing premature birth, a new study warns. The research could help doctors understand when and how to best screen for anxiety during pregnancy to help women have healthy deliveries.
Previous research revealed that one in four pregnant women have higher anxiety levels than their non-pregnant peers. These stresses can be related to the pregnancy itself, including issues regarding childbirth, parenting, the baby’s health, or simply more general concerns that give anyone stress.
“Anxiety about a current pregnancy is a potent psychosocial state that may affect birth outcomes,” says lead study author Christine Dunkel Schetter, PhD, from the University of California-Los Angeles in a media release.
“These days, depressive symptoms are assessed in many clinic settings around the world to prevent complications of postpartum depression for mothers and children. This and other studies suggest that we should also be assessing anxiety in pregnant women.”
The researchers examined data from 196 women in Denver and Los Angeles. Out of all the women, 45 percent were non-Hispanic white, 36 percent were Hispanic, 10 percent were Asian, and nine percent were Black. Study authors measured each woman’s anxiety at different points during their pregnancy.
The third trimester is a critical time for anxiety
The researchers found that those having pregnancy-related anxieties in their third trimester were more likely to have earlier births. Additionally, those who were generally anxious in the first trimester were at risk of a premature birth, as they were less likely to cope well with the worries of pregnancy later on.
“Although not all women who begin pregnancy with general anxiety symptoms will later experience pregnancy-specific anxiety, our results suggest that women who do follow this progression are likely to be especially at risk for earlier delivery,” Dunkel Schetter explains.
These findings, published by the Health Psychology, show that doctors should screen women for general anxiety during early pregnancy, so the women who score highly for stress can stay under observation as the pregnancy goes on.
Through this process, medical professionals will have the opportunity to offer extra help and prevent premature births. According to Dr. Dunkel Schetter, further research is necessary to explore why pregnancy anxiety appears to cause premature birth.
“Increasing precision in our understanding of both the risks and mechanisms of the effects of pregnancy anxiety on gestational length can improve our ability to develop, test and implement interventions to address the pressing public health issue of preterm birth,” the study author concludes.
South West News Service writer Alice Clifford contributed to this report.