Mindfulness is the practice of staying awake, without judgement, to the present moment. Mindfulness practices include a range of activities including awareness of breath, non-judgement, non-reactivity, mindful eating, body scan, and some types of cognitive behavioral therapies. Today’s mindful practices, especially those undergoing scientific study (such as the MBSR curriculum,) are derived from ancient Buddhist practices. Mindfulness is being studied at an ever-growing rate, as more of the benefits of this ancient practice come to light and are adopted into mainstream modern culture.
Mindfulness practices can provide many benefits during pregnancy. Pregnancy is a time of great physiological, hormonal, and anatomical changes to the body. There is the physical component of growing a new life. There is also the emotional and mental side of the process, which can be affected by hormones and anxiety over the major life change that is happening, as well as personal and family history and feelings about pregnancy, birth and family. This post will discuss what mindfulness practices are, the evidence we have on how they can help pregnant individuals and their children, and the biological basis for the effectiveness of mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness practices for pregnancy
Although research into this field is still growing, there is plenty of evidence that mindfulness practices during pregnancy contribute to improved outcome for the birthing person and the baby. There are several ways to incorporate mindfulness during pregnancy. You can take a walk without a podcast or headphones. The next time you find yourself in between activities, close your eyes, and watch your breath closely. When you wake up in the morning, take a moment to notice the sounds of the morning before you open your eyes and get out of bed. When you eat, notice the process. Try to eat without any distractions - tv, newspaper, podcasts. Or simply notice what is around you on a moment by moment basis.
If you want something more formal, you can take a meditation class, or a yoga class. Search for a childbirth education class with a mindfulness focus. Try a meditation app. There are many ways, big and small, to bring mindfulness into your life. And if you’re pregnant, you can think of it as a vital part of your prenatal care, like diet and exercise.
Impact of mindfulness practice on pregnancy
During pregnancy, mindfulness practices can have several benefits, both mental and physical. Mental health is a major concern during pregnancy, and also in the postnatal period. Studies have shown that mindfulness interventions during pregnancy significantly reduce the rate of depressive symptoms in the prenatal period (Newham et al., 2014, Nylicek et al., 2018). Depressive symptoms can have several adverse effects during pregnancy, including low birth weight and pre-term birth. Reducing depressive symptoms through mindfulness practices means a better outcome for both the birthing person and the baby.
In addition to the benefits to mental health, mindfulness practices also contribute to physical wellness during pregnancy. In both pregnant and non-pregnant individuals, mindfulness practices can increase the activity of the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system, and decrease that of the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system. An increase in the parasympathetic nervous system activity has several positive side effects during pregnancy, including greater heart rate variability,and lower blood pressure (Braeken et al, 2017). Too much sympathetic activity can lead to hypertension and preeclampsia. Mindfulness practices help to reduce the likelihood of hypertension and preeclampsia during pregnancy.
Another important study found that symptoms of gestational diabetes are reduced through mindfulness practices. A study offering mindful eating practices combined with yoga for people with gestational diabetes showed a reduction in postprandial blood glucose levels (Youngwanichsetha et al., 2014). Gestational diabetes is increasing worldwide, and has serious consequences for pregnancy. Individuals with gestational diabetes are at greater risk for preeclampsia and pre-term labor. Reducing symptoms of gestational diabetes can improve the outcome and reduce these risks.
Healthy pregnancy and birth
Staying healthy during pregnancy can take many forms. Mindfulness, the careful attention to the present moment, should be one aspect of both maintaining a healthy pregnancy and preparing for birth. It is relatively simple, doesn’t require fancy equipment, and can be done almost anywhere. And the benefits are far-reaching.