Prenatal stress linked to toddler behaviour

The emotional wellbeing of both mothers and fathers prenatally can effect behavioural problems in toddlers
13 August 2019


Yawning baby wrapped in cloth


Prenatal anxiety and stress has been linked to behavioural problems in children during the first 2 years after they are born, a new study has revealed...

For the first time, the wellbeing of both mum and dad were monitored during the third trimester of pregnancy using a set of standardised questionnaires. The questions were aimed at identifying and evaluating symptoms of anxiety and depression in each parent.

Additional questionnaires were then given to each parent when the child reached an age of 4, 14, and 24 months after the birth to monitor changes in emotional state during the early stages of parenthood, and to record the parents' opinions of the child's behavioural adjustments with time.

The emotional state of both parents during the prenatal period had a similar effect on their child’s behaviour at age 2 years. In addition to their individual symptoms, it was also found that the quality of the couple's relationship also correlated with their child's behaviour.

Claire Hughes, first author on the paper, says that the study should “raise awareness” of the importance of monitoring parental wellbeing during pregnancy and not solely after the birth. It is common for new mothers to receive emotional support after the birth, but very little is offered prenatally.

Fathers also warrant more support, Hughes says. "Health workers often sideline and ignore the dad, and that is a routine practise that has to change. I’ve heard that so many times from fathers - that they felt that they weren’t a part of the equation."

Often during the pregnancy a lot of the support is aimed towards the mother of the child, and her health is constantly monitored. However, both parents are expected to feel “scared and worried” but it is “completely normal,” says Hughes.

The results should be interpreted with caution though, since analysis of a child's behavioural problems involves the parents, which may bias the results. “If you’re depressed or anxious as a parent you are going to see small problems as big problems,” explains Hughes.

Therefore, to supplement this data, the researchers are currently “coding videos that were taken during the home visits,” using a simple scenario where the child is given a bag of full toys but is only allowed to touch them for 2 minutes.

The responses of both the child and parents during this scenario are currently being analysed and will be used to compliment the data reported in this study.

“But that situation involves the parent too. So what we’d like to do next is to go forward as the children are about to start school, and get the teachers ratings of how the children are behaving in the classroom.”


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