Can an unborn baby feel unwanted? Effects of stress in the womb

A baby’s experience before birth is still largely unknown – but some research suggests they can sense how a pregnant parent feels.

Experts are still learning what can be perceived from the womb, such as joy, stress, and whether or not an unborn baby may feel unwanted.

A bigger mystery is still how much this affects a child later in life.

If you are an expectant parent and curious about what your child may be feeling, you are not alone. We look at some ways to balance your stress levels and bond with your baby.

From a psychological standpoint, it’s hard to say.

“Babies who are already born can experience mother’s rejection. There are decades of research on attachment bonds that help explain this. However, we don’t know if unborn babies can experience mother’s rejection. This is a difficult area to research and there is little known,” says Emily Guarnotta, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Merrick, New York.

From a neuroendocrine standpoint (as in the chemical or hormonal exchange between mother and baby), it may be possible. It is well known that a mother in distress releases stress hormones, which can affect the development of the child.

Research on the long-term implications is still scarce, but a 2018 study noted that people who believed they were unwanted were more likely to have an insecure attachment style as adults.

If you’re having trouble connecting with your unborn baby, don’t try to beat yourself up, Guarnotta says. “Many parents struggle with this, especially those who have experienced perinatal loss before, such as miscarriage or stillbirth. Staying detached from a pregnancy can be a form of self-protection,” she explains.

Not stress at all is bad. In adults, eustress (also known as “positive stress”) can motivate you to take action and promote personal growth. The same can be true for babies in the womb.

Research from 2006 suggests that mild to moderate stress can actually help babies develop faster. A study from 2010for example, found that babies born to mothers who experienced some stress during pregnancy had faster brain development and matured faster.

A 2015 study supports this view. Experts noted that short-term stress does not appear to have a negative effect on a developing baby. However, too much long-term stress can cause problems due to the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, into the amniotic fluid.

A 2019 study notes that the existing literature has found links to stress during pregnancy and infants with:

It’s worth noting, though, that there’s just not enough information to suggest that stress during pregnancy alone is responsible for these effects, because children can be raised by parents who continue to experience stress, Guarnotta says.

“Parents who are chronically stressed may have difficulty controlling their children’s behavior and emotions, which could explain why children are at risk for these outcomes,” she explains.

“If you’re stressed during pregnancy, don’t beat yourself up. Stress is very normal and there are steps you can take to manage it.”

Guarnotta recommends:

You may also find it helpful to try deep breathing and mindfulness exercises, which can activate your parasympathetic nervous system (also known as rest-and-digest mode).

There are different cultural and spiritual views on what babies may experience in the womb and this can of course be difficult to measure empirically.

But so far, some research suggests that babies can experience sound, experience some visual processing, and even pick up on a mother’s emotions before birth.

Sounds

In a 2013 study, researchers played the same words more than 25,000 times while a baby was in the womb. When the baby was born, their brain activity (measured by EEG) suggested they recognized the sounds.

Sights

Astudy 2017 found that 39 babies in the womb preferred a light pattern that looked like a human face, compared to an inverted triangle, suggesting that some level of visual processing and facial recognition begins before birth.

Emotions

Babies are affected by their parents’ emotional state while in the womb, but the full extent is still unknown, Guarnotta says.

For example, when mothers feel joy, their bodies release oxytocin, also known as the “binding hormone.” Research from 2007 suggests that the more oxytocin released during the first trimester, the more bond there will be between the mother and child after birth.

Harsh emotions can also have an impact, but recent research is limited. A 2020 study found that growing babies can be affected by mood swings, trauma and complications during pregnancy.

Many factors can disrupt bonding with a child in utero, including:

  • anticipatory fear
  • financial difficulties
  • hormonal changes
  • substance use
  • unplanned or unwanted pregnancy
  • leave partner

If possible, consider taking some time to ignore distractions and “just” be with your baby, Guarnotta says.

“Try to find a few minutes each day to do something with the baby, whether it’s reading a book, feeling the baby kick, or doing some quiet meditation.” She says that “parents can bond by talking, singing, or reading to their babies while they’re in the womb.”

Babies in the womb can pick up certain sounds, images and emotions.

A mother’s stress can lead to the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, which can affect the baby’s development in the womb. However, there are many practices that can promote stress reduction.

You may also find it helpful to bond with your baby for a few minutes a day. “Even just 5 to 10 minutes a day can be helpful,” Guarnotta says.