Behaviour problems in toddlers linked to prenatal parental stress

Author: Ingrid Torjesen

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Expectant parents' emotional struggles predict emotional and behavioural problems in two-year-olds, research* published in Development & Psychopathology shows, and may help explain emotional problems in very young children.

The study is the first to examine the influence of both mothers' and fathers' wellbeing before and after birth on children's adjustment at 14 and 24 months of age, and the researchers said their findings highlight a pressing need for greater support for couples before, during and after pregnancy to improve outcomes for children.

The study looked at the experiences of 438 first-time expectant mothers and fathers recruited in the East of England, New York State in the US and the Netherlands, and who were followed up at four, 14 and 24 months after birth.

Using standardized questionnaires and in-person interviews, participating mothers and fathers reported on their symptoms of anxiety and depression in the third trimester of pregnancy and when their child was four, 14 and 24 months old. At each of these visits, parents also completed standardized questionnaire measures of couple relationship quality and children's emotions and behaviour.

The researchers found that the prenatal wellbeing of first-time mothers had a direct impact on the behaviour of their children by the time they were two years old. Mothers who suffered from stress and anxiety in the prenatal period were more likely to see their child display behavioural problems such as temper tantrums, restlessness and spitefulness.

The researchers also found that two-year-olds were more likely to exhibit emotional problems - including being worried, unhappy and tearful; scaring easily; or being clingy in new situations - if their parents had been having early postnatal relationship problems. These ranged from a general lack of happiness in the relationship to rows and other kinds of conflict.

Lead author, Professor Claire Hughes from Cambridge's Centre for Family Research in the UK, said: "For too long, the experiences of first-time dads has either been side-lined or treated in isolation from that of mums. This needs to change because difficulties in children's early relationships with both mothers and fathers can have long-term effects.

“Our findings highlight the need for earlier and more effective support for couples to prepare them better for the transition to parenthood."

She added: "We have already shared our findings with the NCT (National Childbirth Trust) and we encourage the NHS and other organisations to reconsider the support they offer."

The researchers acknowledged that genetic factors are likely to play a role but they accounted for parents' mental health difficulties prior to their first pregnancy and after their child's birth. Co-author Dr Rory Devine, a developmental psychologist at the University of Birmingham, says "Our data demonstrate that mental health problems during pregnancy have a unique impact on children's behaviour problems."


*Hughes C, Devine RT, Mesman J, et al. Parental well-being, couple relationship quality, and children's behavioral problems in the first 2 years of life. Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 July 2019. DOI: 10.1017/S0954579419000804

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