Maternal Distress During Pregnancy Associated with Increased Risk of Mental Health Issues and Behavior Problems in Children


New research published by the American Psychological Association has found that children whose mothers experience high levels of stress, anxiety, or depression during pregnancy may be at a greater risk for mental health and behavior issues throughout their childhood and teen years. The study, conducted by researchers from California State University Dominguez Hills, suggests that psychological distress during pregnancy has a small yet persistent effect on children’s likelihood of developing aggressive, disinhibited, and impulsive behaviors. These findings highlight the importance of accessible mental health care and support for pregnant women in order to prevent childhood behavior problems.

The study analyzed data from 55 studies involving over 45,000 participants. All of the studies assessed women’s psychological distress during pregnancy, including stress, depression, and anxiety, and later measured their children’s externalizing behaviors, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms or aggression.

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

The findings, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, confirm previous research indicating a connection between maternal mental health during pregnancy and children’s externalizing behaviors. However, this study distinguishes itself by specifically examining the effects of stress, anxiety, and depression during pregnancy, separate from parents’ psychological distress after the child is born.

Even after considering later psychological distress experienced by mothers after giving birth, the researchers found that maternal distress during pregnancy increased the risk of children developing externalizing problems. The effect was consistent regardless of the child’s gender and was prevalent during early childhood (ages 2-5), middle childhood (6-12), and adolescence (13-18), though it was strongest during early childhood.

According to the researchers, these findings align with theories proposing that exposure to stress hormones in the womb can impact the development of a child’s brain.

Moving forward, the researchers suggest that future studies should focus on increasing diversity in order to understand the cultural and socioeconomic factors that contribute to prenatal stress. This will aid in the development of effective interventions. Most previous research has primarily focused on white, middle-class, and highly educated samples, failing to address the impact of racism, economic disparities, and limited access to healthcare on maternal stress during pregnancy. Understanding the effects of psychological distress on underrepresented families is crucial for designing equitable public health policies and interventions.

The team of researchers is currently conducting two studies aimed at understanding the types of support and resources that promote resilience and recovery from prenatal stress, particularly for families facing health inequities. The objective is to inform culturally inclusive preventive interventions during pregnancy that can support early mental health resilience and well-being for both parents and their children.



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