PhotoIn order to protect the health of an unborn baby, it’s crucial to stop bad habits like smoking and drinking. Now, new research suggests mothers-to-be should also make an effort to squash another bad habit -- getting stressed out.

According to researchers from the University of Ottawa, a mother's stress can alter brain development in the fetus leading to an increased risk of behavioral problems, such as hyperactivity.

The research team, led by Dr. Ian Colman, found that mothers who experienced a significant amount of stress during their pregnancy were more likely to give birth to a child with behavioral issues.

Twice as likely

"Mothers who are exposed to high levels of stress during pregnancy have kids who are more than twice as likely to have chronic symptoms of hyperactivity and conduct disorder," Dr. Colman said.

"Generally speaking, we found that the higher the stress, the higher the symptoms," he said.

About 10 percent of school-age children are affected by hyperactivity (a symptom of ADHD) or conduct disorder. Behavioral disorders can lead to problems in school and trouble in kids' relationships with family and friends, he said.

But lowering prenatal stress may play a big role in helping to prevent behavioral problems in children, the researchers said in their recently published findings.

What to do

"We can't avoid most stressful events in our lives and since we can't always prevent them, the focus should be on helping mothers manage stress in order to give their children the best start in life,” Dr. Colman said.

Combating stress can be a difficult feat under normal circumstances, but pregnancy brings with it a unique crop of fears and anxieties. So what can a mom-to-be do to shrink their stress level?

Here are a few tips that can help expectant mothers manage their stress, according to the researchers:

  • Identify the root. Determine what is causing your stress and be proactive in addressing it.
  • Talk about it. Talk to your loved one about what’s stressing you out. Help them help you.
  • Simplify your life. Ease your mental load during pregnancy by shortening your to-do list and learning to say ‘no.’
  • Meditate. Quiet your mind by practicing mindfulness and/or doing yoga.
  • Carve out time for yourself. Find time to do what you love, whether it’s a hobby or physical activity.

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