Recent times have produced a number of stressors, from COVID-19 restrictions and higher gas prices to wildfires.

As a result, Rio Rancho-Albuquerque area hospitals and birthing centers emphasize the importance of managing stress in the days and weeks leading up to welcoming newborns into the world, because it can otherwise have lasting consequences for expecting mothers and their babies.

“There are studies that correlate maternal stress with some newborn outcomes like fetal growth restriction or preterm labor,” said Alisa Henning, co-founder and clinical director at Dar a Luz Birth & Health Center.

Health risks

According to the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Biotechnology Information, maternal stress during pregnancy and intrauterine growth restriction (when a fetus doesn’t grow to a normal weight during gestation) negatively impacts an infant’s neurodevelopment and increases the risk of things like schizophrenia, depression and behavioral disorders later in life.

Dar a Luz co-founder Alisa Henning (Matt Hollinshead/Observer)

Henning said stress during pregnancy can leave a long-term impact on the placenta and expose the baby to stress hormones, which can in turn affect their brain development and neuron connectivity. Stress might also affect the dilation progression in a mother’s labor, she said.

Dr. Maria Montoya, an obstetrician and gynecologist at UNM Health Sciences, said chronic cortisol increases inflammation in a person, which can make someone more susceptible to thinking pain levels may be higher than they actually are. She said stress levels in people are much higher than normal, and some pregnant women have been impacted by various factors such as the wildfires. For example, Montoya said one pregnant patient was transferred to UNMH for care from another county affected by one of the fires.

“You sort of add in all these additional stressors, and it can feel very overwhelming and isolating,” Montoya said. “A lot of our patients have a lot of needs right now. Maybe four or five years ago, we didn’t have this level of need.”

Notable barriers

For some expecting moms who may require frequent hospital visits because of pregnancy complications, Beth Tarrant, a certified nurse and midwife with UNM Hospital, said some patients may live in a remote part of the state and have to travel a longer distance to a hospital. Higher gasoline prices may create an extra barrier for that patient when she needs to make the long drive, so UNMH focuses on mapping out a plan in advance for those patients in case they require multiple visits.

“That’s a very common issue, even without the inflation concerns. But it’s compounded now, for sure,” Tarrant said.

Tarrant said the number of support people UNMH allows to be with a pregnant patient is still limited to two because of COVID-19 concerns. In-person childbirth education at the hospital is still not available because UNMH isn’t allowing larger groups of people to be in rooms.

As a result, patients may have a more difficult time with pain management because they have to choose which family member they’d be with.

“It’s a challenge. We’re trying to do the best that we can during prenatal care to have conversations about what to expect, options and supporting people’s choices,” Tarrant said.

‘If you worry too much, it can put stress on your pregnancy’

When it comes to dealing with stressors, Rio Rancho resident Katie Hanna, who was 38 weeks pregnant with her third child entering Mother’s Day weekend, said it’s important to have realistic expectations about what’s within your control.

“When you’re pregnant, you can’t control everything that’s going to happen. You kind of have to let go… The process is going to happen the way it wants to happen. You can’t predict every environmental factor that’s going on around you,” Hanna, 35, said. “If you worry too much, it can put stress on your pregnancy.”

Hanna also sets her priorities, which includes taking care of her two older children as a stay-at-home mom, and keeping a daily routine. She has the peace of mind of knowing her family is financially secure. Those things help her minimize stress.

Montoya said she helps her patients find time to practice mindfulness and doing an outdoor activity away from electronics to help them unplug.

“Especially as a new baby comes along, there’s so much pressure on mom to kind of do it all,” she said.

Tarrant said UNMH is focusing on educating expecting dads in the room how to do things like alleviate their spouse’s lower back pressure, plus having other present family members engage in things like breathing exercises.

Dar a Luz, a birthing and women’s health center in Albuquerque’s Los Ranchos neighborhood, offers childbirth classes, newborn classes and postpartum care classes. One of the notable classes it teaches is self-hypnosis meditation, which features mindful breathing exercises.

The layout designs at Dar a Luz, which sees expecting mothers from all over New Mexico and even communities like Durango, Colo. and El Paso, Texas, are meant to help lower stress — from the birthing rooms to an outdoor half-labyrinth. Dar a Luz also focuses on keeping communication lines between staff and clients open as often as possible, something Hanna said is critical in helping reduce stress.

“The less unknowns there are, the more prepared the parents feel and then hopefully the less stress they’re going to have about things,” Henning said. “If you’re stressed out, if you’re having anxiety, that definitely increases your perception of pain.”