uOttawa Study Confirms Effect of Prenatal Stress on Children’s Mental Health

Posted on Monday, June 20, 2016

Expectant mothers who experience stressful life events during pregnancy are more likely to have children who develop depression in adolescence, according to a study by University of Ottawa professor Ian Colman published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Researchers examined data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children in the U.K., which has followed 14,000 pregnant women and their children since 1991. At 18 weeks’ pregnancy, mothers were asked about the occurrence and impact of recent life events causing them stress. Questionnaires assessed 42 events, including the death of a loved one, loss of employment, financial and relationship issues, fears of miscarriage, and accidents, with respondents rating how severely they were affected by the occurrences. In turn, their children responded to questionnaires about depressive symptoms at six time points between the ages of 10 to 19.

Using data collected from 10,569 mothers and their children, Dr. Colman and his colleagues found that children of mothers who were exposed to life events causing the highest levels of stress during early pregnancy were 72% more likely to have chronic symptoms of depression throughout adolescence, independent of the mother’s mental health or socioeconomic status.

This is the first study to demonstrate that prenatal exposure to acute stress, regardless of how it affects a mother’s mental health, can affect the fetus and its brain development. “We were interested in exploring the fetal programming hypothesis, which is the idea that what happens to you in the womb can have long-term effects on your health,” said Dr. Colman, who is Canada Research Chair in Mental Health Epidemiology and an associate professor at the Faculty of Medicine. “This research underscores the importance of supporting expectant mothers. The reassuring news is that there is growing evidence that the effects of early-life stress may be reduced or reversed if the child grows up in a supportive environment.”

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