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Stressed mums-to-be could find their children more of a handful

Press release issued: 5 June 2002

Media release
Stressed mums-to-be could find their children more of a handful

Women who experience anxiety and stress, particularly in late pregnancy, seem to have an increased risk of their child having emotional and behavioural problems as they grow older, a study has found.

There has been a long history of research on animals linking antenatal stress to behavioural problems in their offspring. The problems in these studies appeared to persist into adulthood. Until now there has been no similar systematic assessment of humans for this.

Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry, Imperial College School of Medicine and at the Universities of Bristol and Plymouth, found that women who reported feelings of stress and anxiety in pregnancy often reported elevated rates of behavioural problems in their offspring.

The study used the Bristol University-based group of more than fourteen thousand families in the influential Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, popularly known as Children of the 90s. The health and development of those involved have been monitored since early pregnancy, the only mass-population study to do so.

Mums-to-be reported on their own feelings of stress and anxiety and were asked the same questions again at various points after the birth of their child. They also provided information on the children's behaviour and emotional difficulties at 47 months. The children were assessed using a well-known screening measure for severe problems such as hyperactivity.

The scientists found that mothers who were very anxious in pregnancy had an increased risk by about 50% of children having severe behavioural and emotional problems. Late pregnancy may be indicated as a particularly sensitive period. That association was found after taking into account factors such as smoking and drinking alcohol during pregnancy and social factors such as economic stress.

The study raises the possibility that interventions to reduce anxiety in mothers who are pregnant may prevent the subsequent development of behavioural or emotional problems in their children.

"Maternal antenatal anxiety and children's behavioural/emotional problems at 4 years" O'Connor T G, Heron J, Golding J, Beveridge M, Glover V, ALSPAC Study Team. British Journal of Psychiatry Vol 180 pp 502-508.

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Copyright: 2001 The University of Bristol, UK
Updated: Wednesday, 05-Jun-2002 16:13:11 BST

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