Fertility and anxiety

The most important thing to know is that having anxiety does not stop you from being able to get pregnant. Many women think if they are anxious this will stop them from having a baby. There is enough research now to say this is not the case.

Anxious feelings about fertility are common and likely to be related to distress at not having any control over getting pregnant, that others have high expectations of you, including sometimes your partner, and that your body is failing somehow and you fear there might be something really wrong and you will never be able to have a baby.

Is this you?

LEARN Consider the different stories.

THINK Then, to understand more about what causes anxiety you can explore the different social, psychological and physical things that can increase anxiety. In this section you will find questions to ask yourself about each cause to see if it affects you.

DO Once you have explored the causes of anxiety then it is time to do something. Go to a specialist to help you to find a range of different tools to help yourself try and reduce anxiety.

What about during pregnancy? The old idea that stress causes miscarriage isn’t supported by the data and seems, thankfully, to have lost some of its traction. The current angst, though—that emotional symptoms can lead to preterm birth—threatens to torment women at least as much. It’s true that you can find smaller studies that fuel the fear. But consider this large, population-based work, in which researchers interviewed over 78,000 Danish women. Those who reported higher levels of life stress and more emotional symptoms like anxiety when they were 30 weeks pregnant did tend to give birth earlier. But the difference was pretty minimal: The women with the highest life-stress scores gave birth, on average, about two days before women with lower scores. Those who reported the most intense emotional symptoms had pregnancies that were just two-and-a-half days shorter. This isn’t an effect that matters in children’s lives.

Finally, there’s the question of how Mom’s distress during pregnancy affects kids’ actual development. Here, too, the data are mixed. The strongest studies try to separate the influence of maternal stress during pregnancy from the stress or adversity, after birth, in children’s home environments. (Often there is a correlation between the two.) This research also tries to assess children directly, rather than relying on parents’ reports about their behavior. The most persuasive of these papers suggest that mild to moderate stress during pregnancy doesn’t hamper babies’ maturation—if anything, it may slightly hasten it.In one study, fetuses whose mothers reported higher levels of distress tended to be more active in utero, a positive developmental sign. In another study, newborns of more distressed women conveyed electrical signals more rapidly along the nerve from the ear to the brain, also a marker of neural development. And in a study of toddlers, the results were more striking still: Two-year-olds who were exposed in utero to more maternal distress, including depression or anxiety, scored higher on a standard measure of child development: “It just looks like they mature a little faster,” said Janet DiPietro of Johns Hopkins, who conducted these studies. In other words, there is little evidence that maternal stress during pregnancy is bad for babies.

DiPietro, who is one of the foremost experts in the world on fetal outcomes, says she finds the continued intensity of work on these questions puzzling, given the findings so far. “I’m trying to get out of the stress stuff!” she told me. So should the rest of us. It’s time to stop worrying that our worrying will prevent us from reproducing successfully. Survival of the species, it turns out, just isn’t that fragile.