I remember one night when I was pregnant with my son, I couldn’t sleep; I kept worrying about if the bath I took was too hot, if I had eaten something wrong, if something was wrong with him. My pregnancy was magical and my mood was better than it’d been in years, but that particular night I just felt worried. I feared giving birth too early, or worse, miscarriage.
The fear of having a premature baby was not unique to my pregnancy - other moms experience the same fears too. A few years ago I got a worried call from a loved one who was pregnant with twins. She was worried about the pregnancy, how the babies were doing, pain she was having, and ultimately if she was going to go into labor early and have two premature babies.
One of the big fears with a premature baby is that their birth weight will be low, and that their lungs won’t be developed (along with other concerns as well, of course. I’m not a doctor, though I am a mother.) Premature birth and low birth weight are a major concern for a newborn infant passing away.
Even though the United States is an advanced country with medical resources readily available to its citizens, infant mortality is still an issue. Compared to other similar western countries like Canada, Switzerland, and the UK, the United States has the highest rate of infant death. Check out the data that these stats come from here, or view an easy-to-read graph here. To sum it up, the United States has 1.7 times more infants die than other countries with similar GDP.
In the United States, the CDC explains that the top three causes of infant mortality are 1. Birth defects, 2. Preterm birth and low birth weight, and 3. Maternal pregnancy complications. So even though it seems that a mother’s worries about having her baby too early are over the top, they really aren’t. Having a preterm, or premature, baby is a real concern. The CDC explained that “preterm birth rate rose for the second straight year in 2016,” (link). So not only are me and other moms concerned about their unborn babies being born too early, it’s a concern for the United States as a whole.
So what are we supposed to do about it? It seems like a big problem, right? Maybe, just maybe, this problem doesn’t have as complicated of a solution as it seems, though.
Prenatal yoga is an extremely promising avenue for preventing preterm babies, and ensuring that babies are born at a healthy birth weight. Three different studies illustrate that women who participate in prenatal yoga are less likely to have a baby with low birth weight/have a preterm birth; read them here, here, and here.
Yoga outperforms other group exercise
It can be hard to pick apart what aspects of yoga create this affect; yoga traditionally has multiple facets to it. First, there are the physical postures that the teacher guides you through during class, called asanas. Next, there are pranayama, or the breathing exercise that are incorporated to a yoga class. Sometimes pranayama will take the form of simply pairing the breath to certain movements, and sometimes the teacher may have time set aside for the class to sit quietly and practice a breathing exercise. Lastly, meditation is an important part of yoga. That can come in the form of a formal meditation which the teacher guides the class through, or incorporated thought the class in the form of mindfulness.
One study started chipping away at what the “special sauce” of yoga is by placing a group of women in a walking group, and another group of women in a prenatal yoga class. By comparing these two activities, we can understand if the yoga is simply effective because it is group exercise, or if it’s effective because of the combination of asanas, pranayama, and meditation.
This 2010 study showed that yoga was more effective than a walking group at preventing preterm labor (check out the study), so it’s clear that simply exercising in a group is the not the “special sauce” that prenatal yoga presents. There is something about practicing all facets of yoga in a group that lowers the risk of preterm labor and babies with low birth weights.
Depressed women have more premature babies
Another factor that is important to prenatal yoga is its effect on mood and mental health. Many studies have shown that yoga in general improves mental health. (Refer to just a few of those studies here, here. On top of that, prenatal yoga is shown to improve the mental health of pregnant women. Read those studies here, here, here, here, here, here, here.
So why is that important? Because three different studies have shown that depressed women are more likely to deliver prematurely (read those studies here, here, here). In addition, two additional studies show that depressed women are more likely to have babies with low birthweight (read those studies here, here). The way that a mother feels therefore has a huge impact on pregnancy and the outcome of that pregnancy.
Yoga is shown to reduce mental health issues, and one of the important outcomes of improved mental health is giving birth to healthy babies. Not only does that follow logic, but there are multiples studies that prove that yoga itself provides the positive outcomes of healthy babies. This is a bold way to illustrate how taking care of mom is the best way to take care of a baby.
Nicole Hunt, founder of Here and Now Motherhood, is currently teaching the only prenatal yoga class in the tricities of East Tennessee. Sign up for her class in Johnson City, TN here. There’s always free childcare, so bring your kids along!