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Cause for concern

A tight budget compounded by worries about pregnancy could set a mom up for delivering a smaller, less-healthy baby.

A new study from The Ohio State University found that it wasn’t general stress or anxiety, but pregnancy-specific distress that was linked to low-birth-weight babies.

“This includes concerns about labor and delivery, about relationships changing, about working after the baby arrives, paying for medical care and whether the baby will be unhealthy,” said study author Lisa Christian, a member of Ohio State’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.

Previous research has shown that pregnant moms who live in poverty have a higher likelihood of having smaller, sicker babies.

The Ohio State research team was looking for the link between financial strain and poor birth outcomes and found that these types of worries appear to pave the way for low-birth-weight infants.

Smaller babies often suffer from serious health problems and spend their first weeks or months in intensive care. About 8 percent of babies born in the United States are underweight at birth. Doctors consider a baby’s birth weight low if he or she is below 5 pounds and 8 ounces.

“There is an opportunity here to look for interventions during pregnancy that could help mitigate the effects of financial strain on birth outcomes,” said lead author Amanda Mitchell, a researcher in Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s Stress and Health in Pregnancy Research Program.

While larger efforts to improve access to housing, jobs and support for low-income women is critical, there are potential low-cost, stress-reduction techniques that could help, Mitchell said. Meditation and breathing exercises could prove useful, for instance.

“It’s important for all women who experience pregnancy-related stress to seek out help coping with that stress,” Mitchell said. “And ob-gyns and other medical providers should also talk about stress during their visits with expecting moms.”

The study included 138 pregnant women who filled out questionnaires about financial strain, depressive symptoms, pregnancy-specific distress, perceived stress and general anxiety. Moms in the racially diverse study group were between five and 31 weeks pregnant and 29 years old on average.

Financial strain was assessed based on a five-point scale derived from moms’ responses to three questions:

  • “How difficult is it for you to live on your total household income right now?”
  • “In the next two months, how likely is it that you and your family will experience actual hardships, such as inadequate housing, food or medical attention?”
  • “How likely is it that you and your family will have to reduce your standard of living to the bare necessities of life?”

The Ohio State researchers are working on another study looking at blood biomarkers that might better explain what biological changes could be at play, including inflammation, Mitchell said.