Now and Zen: Lower prenatal stress reduces risk of behavioural issues in kids

Posted on Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Pregnant woman sitting in a field

Parenting is a complicated journey full of questions, and when a beloved child begins to show signs of a behavioural disorder, a parent’s challenges become even more difficult to navigate.

Expectant mothers may want to consider adopting today’s trend towards stress management, in light of new research from the University of Ottawa pointing to its ability to lower the risk of problematic behaviour in their offspring.

Pregnant woman practicing yoga in front of a mirror

Dr. Ian Colman, associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine, led a team of researchers in examining data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. The team found that mothers who experience significant prenatal stress may be increasing their child’s risk for behavioural issues.

“Mothers who are exposed to high levels of stress during pregnancy have kids who are more than twice as likely to have chronic symptoms of hyperactivity and conduct disorder,” Dr. Colman said of the team’s recently published findings.

“Hyperactivity is a symptom of ADHD, and about 10% of school-age children are affected by ADHD or conduct disorder,” he said. “These disorders can lead to poor results in school and difficulties in their relationships with family and friends.”

Behavioural disorders such as those seen by the researchers are characterized by aggressive or antisocial behaviour, high activity levels, and difficulty inhibiting behaviour. They are also associated with school failure, substance use/abuse, and criminal activity, according to the paper.

A mother’s stress can alter brain development in the fetus, and it is believed these changes may be long-lasting or permanent, said Dr. Colman.

The team was unique in its approach: it studied the effects of specific stressors on participants, as opposed to gauging overall stress levels. Participants reported stressful events, such as problems at work, the illness of a relative, or an argument with a partner, family or friend. “Generally speaking, we found that the higher the stress, the higher the symptoms,” Dr. Colman said. “We can’t avoid most stressful events in our lives and since we can’t always prevent them, the focus should be on helping mothers manage stress in order to give their children the best start in life.”

 Identify what's behind your stress. Talk to your loved ones. Simplify your life by shortening your to-do list and learn to say no. Quiet your mind through yoga and mindfulness. Find time to do things you enjoy.

Find more advice on the CMHA website.

For more information, read the study in Biological Psychiatry.

Media inquiries

Amélie Ferron-Craig
Media Relations Officer
University of Ottawa
Cell: 613-863-7221
aferronc@uOttawa.ca

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