Anxiety during pregnancy affects child behavior

July 16, 2004

The idea that a woman's emotional state during pregnancy affects her unborn child has persisted for centuries and has, in recent years, been supported by science. Called the "fetal programming hypothesis," it theorizes that certain disturbing factors occurring during certain sensitive periods of development in utero can "program" set points in a variety of biological systems in the unborn child. This, then, affects the ability of those biological systems to change later in life, resulting in difficulties adapting physiologically and ultimately predisposing a child to disease and disorder.

We decided to investigate the affect of high levels of anxiety during a woman's pregnancy on her child's susceptibility for attention deficits, hyperactivity, acting out and anxiety disorders in childhood. We also wanted to learn whether there are specific vulnerable periods during the pregnancy in which this anxiety "programs" the child's biological system, thus increasing the fetus' susceptibility for such disorders.

We evaluated data collected on 71 normal mothers and their 72 first-born children during pregnancy and when their children were 8 or 9. The mothers completed questionnaires to measure their anxiety levels throughout their pregnancy. When the children were 8 or 9, the mothers, a teacher, and an impartial observer completed questionnaires to measure the child's attention and hyperactivity, acting-out behavior and anxiety level.

Our results suggest that the period between 12 and 22 weeks of the pregnancy is a particularly vulnerable period; only maternal anxiety during this period predicted childhood disorders at age 8 and 9. Importantly, the effect of anxiety affected the fetus more than any other factor, including smoking during pregnancy, low birthweight, or anxiety of the mother when the child is 8 or 9.

The results provide some of the strongest indirect evidence available today that a woman's anxiety during pregnancy may program some set point in the early developing brain of the fetus, thus enhancing the child's susceptibility for childhood disorders such as attention deficit, hyperactivity, acting-out and anxiety problems. Clearly, many questions on exactly how fetal programming works in humans, and how the timing, kind and duration of environmental disturbances are related to altered neurobehavioral development, are still unresolved.

Evidence from this and other studies, however, provide an impetus for developing prevention, intervention and support programs for highly anxious pregnant women. These programs could include stress reduction instructions as well as treatments to reduce anxiety and neuroendocrine reactions to stress throughout the pregnancy, or even before conception. They may benefit not only the mother but also the developing child.
-end-
Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 75, Issue 4, High Antenatal Maternal Anxiety is Related to ADHD Symptoms, Externalizing Problems and Anxiety in 8/9-Year-Olds by B.R.H. Van den Bergh and A. Marcoen, Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. Copyright 2004 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.

Society for Research in Child Development

Related Pregnancy Articles from Brightsurf:

COVID-19 has a prolonged effect for many during pregnancy
Symptoms for pregnant women with COVID-19 can be prolonged, lasting two months or longer for a quarter of the women who participated in a national study led by UC San Francisco and UCLA.

Relaxed through pregnancy
A group of researchers from Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin have been able to show that maternal psychological wellbeing during pregnancy has a positive effect on newborn infants.

Trajectories of antidepressant medication use during pregnancy
In an analysis of women who started pregnancy when taking antidepressant medications, investigators identified three trajectories of antidepressant dispensing during pregnancy: more than half stopped their treatment, a quarter maintained their treatment throughout pregnancy, and one-fifth discontinued it for a minimum of three months and then resumed it during the postpartum period.

Are women using e-cigarettes during preconception and/or pregnancy?
A new study of 1,365 racially/ethnically diverse, low-income pregnant women found that 4% reported e-cigarette use.

A better pregnancy test for whales
To determine whale pregnancy, researchers have relied on visual cues or hormone tests of blubber collected via darts, but the results were often inconclusive.

Cannabis use during pregnancy
The large health care system Kaiser Permanente Northern California provides universal screening for prenatal cannabis use in women during pregnancy by self-report and urine toxicology testing.

Questions and answers about cannabis use during pregnancy
A new study shows that women have many medical questions about the use of cannabis both before and during pregnancy, and during the postpartum period while breastfeeding.

The effect of taking antidepressants during pregnancy
Exposure to antidepressants during pregnancy and the first weeks of life can alter sensory processing well into adulthood, according to research in mice recently published in eNeuro.

Is ivermectin safe during pregnancy?
Is it safe to give ivermectin to pregnant women? To answer this question, researchers from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), an institution supported by 'la Caixa,' conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of studies that reported cases of accidental exposure to the drug among pregnant women.

Going to sleep on your back in late pregnancy
This study looked at whether going to sleep on your back in the third trimester of pregnancy was associated with average lower birth weights.

Read More: Pregnancy News and Pregnancy Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.