Children of Highly Stressed Pregnant Mothers at Higher Risk

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Children of Highly Stressed Pregnant Mothers at Higher Risk

Jim Windell


          A certain amount of stress during pregnancy is normal. During pregnancy, a woman’s body is going through many changes. As her hormones change, so does her moods.

          However, too much stress can cause an expectant mother to have trouble sleeping, headaches, loss of appetite, or a tendency to overeat. All of these things could be harmful – both to the woman and her developing baby.

          On the other hand, high levels of stress can cause high blood pressure, which increases a woman’s chances of having preterm labor or delivering a low-birth-weight infant. And, of course, babies born too soon or too small are at increased risk for health problems.  

          But will stress during pregnancy result in metal health problems or behavioral disorders for the child in later years?

          That was the question posed by Irene Tung, Ph.D., a researcher at California State University Dominguez Hills, and her colleagues. They were aware that research has long suggested a link between mothers’ mental health during pregnancy and children’s externalizing behaviors. However, many previous studies have not disentangled the effects of stress, anxiety or depression during pregnancy from the effects of parents’ psychological distress after a child is born.

          In the current study, which was published recently in the journal Psychological Bulletin, the researchers only included research in which mothers’ psychological distress was measured both during and after pregnancy. Tung and her colleagues analyzed data from 55 studies with more than 45,000 total participants. All the studies measured women’s psychological distress during pregnancy (including stress, depression or anxiety) and then later measured their children’s “externalizing behaviors” – mental health symptoms directed outward, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or aggression. 

          Overall, the researchers found that women who reported more anxiety, depression or stress while pregnant were more likely to have children with more ADHD symptoms or who exhibited more difficulties with aggressive or hostile behavior, as reported by parents or teachers.

          According to Dr. Tung, “Our research suggests that psychological distress during the pregnancy period has a small but persistent effect on children’s risk for aggressive, disinhibited and impulsive behaviors. These findings add to the evidence that providing widely accessible mental health care and support during pregnancy may be a critical step to help prevent childhood behavior problems.”

          She noted that the effect held true regardless of whether the children were boys or girls. And it held true for children in early childhood (ages 2-5), middle childhood (6-12) and adolescence (13-18), though the effect was strongest in early childhood. The findings are consistent with theories that suggest that exposure to stress hormones in utero can affect children’s brain development,

          “Most existing research has focused on white, middle-class and higher educated samples,” Tung says. “But experiences of racism, economic disparities and lack of health care access are known contributors to stress during pregnancy. Understanding how psychological distress during pregnancy impacts underrepresented families is key to developing equitable public health policies and interventions.” 

          She and her colleagues are now conducting two studies focused on understanding the types of support and resources that promote resilience and recovery from stress during pregnancy, particularly for families facing health inequities. The goal is to help inform culturally inclusive preventive interventions during pregnancy to help support early mental health resilience and well-being for parents and their children.   

          To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Tung, I., Hipwell, A. E., Grosse, P., Battaglia, L., Cannova, E., English, G., ... & Foust, J. E. (2023). Prenatal stress and externalizing behaviors in childhood and adolescence: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin.


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