April 20, 2024

Maternal Stress during Pregnancy Linked to Children’s Behavior Problems, Study Finds

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 higher risk for behavior and mental health issues during childhood and adolescence. The study, conducted by Irene Tung, PhD, of California State University Dominguez Hills, suggests that psychological distress during pregnancy can have a small but persistent effect on a child’s risk of exhibiting aggressive, disinhibited, and impulsive behaviors.

The study analyzed data from 55 previous studies, encompassing over 45,000 participants in total. All of the studies measured women’s psychological distress during pregnancy, including stress, depression, or anxiety, and subsequently measured their children’s externalizing behaviors, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or aggression. The researchers found that women who reported higher levels of anxiety, depression, or stress during pregnancy 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 support previous research that has suggested a link between a mother’s mental health during pregnancy and her child’s externalizing behaviors. However, this study specifically focused on disentangling the effects of stress, anxiety, or depression during pregnancy from the effects of psychological distress after the child is born. By only including research that measured distress both during and after pregnancy, the study found that distress during pregnancy increased a child’s risk of developing externalizing problems, regardless of gender. This effect was observed in children in early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence, with the strongest effect seen in early childhood.

The researchers hypothesize that exposure to stress hormones in utero may impact a child’s brain development, contributing to the observed behavior problems. While previous research has predominantly focused on white, middle-class, and higher-educated samples, the study emphasizes the need to understand the impact of psychological distress during pregnancy on underrepresented families. Factors such as racism, economic disparities, and lack of access to healthcare contribute to stress during pregnancy in these communities. In order to develop equitable public health policies and interventions, it is essential to understand how prenatal stress affects these populations.

To further explore this topic, Tung and her colleagues are currently 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 aim is to develop culturally inclusive preventive interventions during pregnancy, which can support early mental health resilience and well-being for both parents and children.

Moving forward, future research should aim to increase diversity and consider cultural and socioeconomic variables that influence prenatal stress. This will not only enhance our understanding of the effects of maternal stress during pregnancy but also enable the development of effective interventions to support maternal mental health and child well-being.


  1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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