Women who are hoping to become pregnant need to evaluate their stress levels before trying to conceive, a new study has revealed. Higher stress levels in the mother are linked to a lower birth weight for baby, as well as potential health disorders for baby down the road.

“I wish more women would do a pre-conception visit,” Dr. Lizellen La Follette, an OB/GYN at Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, California, told LifeZette. “First of all, there is so much an obstetrician can test for beforehand in the area of genetics, which is helpful. And we can address lowering stress prior to pregnancy. I always ask my patients, ‘What is your stress level?’ Very important.”

The new study, by UCLA and published online in the journal Health Psychology, looked at 142 women in several different cities, predominantly black, Latino, Hispanic and other non-Caucasians. The majority of the women had household incomes at or below the poverty level.

The UCLA researchers also studied the babies one month after birth, and again at 6 months, 12 months, and 18 months old.

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The study looked at the expectant mothers’ cortisol levels. Cortisol is also called “the stress hormone.” We all have cortisol, a glucocorticoid (steroid hormone) that is produced in the two adrenal glands located on top of each kidney.

Cortisol is released in response to many events throughout the day such as waking, walking, or dealing with stresses large and small — and its systemic effects play many roles in the body’s efforts to carry out different processes.

Most people have a high cortisol level first thing in the morning, and it drops throughout the day. In some people, however, the cortisol level is lower in the morning, but decreases by smaller-than-normal amounts throughout the day, resulting in higher cortisol levels overall.

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Cortisol levels typically increase two to four times during a pregnancy, and that organic increase plays an important natural role in fetal development and growth. But when cortisol climbs up beyond that normal range, blood flow to the fetus may be reduced, influencing the child’s health and even the response to stress later in life, the study revealed.

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“We found that the same cortisol pattern that has been linked with chronic stress is associated with delivering a baby that weighs less at birth,” reported Christine Guardino, a postdoctoral scholar in psychology and the lead author of the study.

Babies who weigh less than about five pounds have a higher risk of infant mortality and health problems throughout their lives, including metabolic and cardiovascular disorders, the study found. In the U.S., about 300,000 babies are born each year that weigh under that. These babies will likely grow into adults who need more health care, further burdening an already strained health care system.

The women in the UCLA study were experiencing stress from a variety of factors, including finances, neighborhood and family issues, major life events, and interpersonal violence.

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“Some of these stressors are pretty hard to fix,” said La Follette. “As a country, we’re not doing a good job right now of fixing them, either. The economy is so stressful for so many, there are too many single-parent households; these larger societal issues need to be addressed for any real gains to be made.”

All women need to keep an eye on stress levels before pregnancy, during pregnancy — and beyond.

“Improving pre-conception health can profoundly improve our overall health,” Chris Dunkel Schetter, co-lead author of the UCLA study, told Livescience.com. “Women should treat depression, evaluate and treat stress, be sure they are in a healthy relationship, be physically active, stop smoking and gather family support. All of the things that can create an optimal pregnancy and healthy life for the mother should be done before getting pregnant.”

Reducing stress is often easier said than done — but the effort, researchers say, is worth it.

“When I was pregnant with my two sons, I worked very hard to remain calm and upbeat,” said one mom in the New York area. “I forced myself not to dwell on negative things or get pulled into stressful situations. I had to work at it. It’s my nature to worry about things, so it was an adjustment for me. But I believe it paid off.”

La Follette, who practices medicine in California and sees type-A personalities who work around the clock “in search of the next unicorn,” as she put it — offered these concrete steps to de-stress.

“Turn off the phone — all the way off. Exercise mindfully, with the goal of completely freeing your mind. Have work, and then time that is specifically not work. That’s very important to have. There should be no halfway.”