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Can prenatal stress in either parent impact a child’s adjustment?

A recent study examined the impact of prenatal stress in first-time parents on the social, emotional, and psychological development of the child.

Bringing a child into the world is an enormous responsibility. Any parent, especially a first-time mother or father, understands this without needing to read through the current scientific literature. Yet, psychologists have been studying the parent-child relationship for more than a century. Psychological studies have shed light on the various influences that parental behavior may have on the child.

How stress affects child development

It has been previously shown that stress, whether it is postpartum or prenatal stress, can adversely affect child development. For instance, maternal depression and anxiety have been linked to poorer academic achievements in children. Yet, scientists have shown that the father’s mood is also particularly important when it comes to children’s wellbeing. This has become particularly important given the increased spread of paternal involvement in childrearing.

While psychologists know a good deal about these links, few studies have examined these effects in tandem. For instance, little is known about the relative impact of both mothers’ and fathers’ wellbeing on children’s development. Likewise, there have been few studies examining such impact over time, relating changes in wellbeing from the prenatal period and into the child’s first few years.

Studying prenatal stress of first-time parents

To address this gap in developmental literature, researchers from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the United States devised a study with first-time parents who live together (but not necessarily married). As published in Development and Psychopathology, in total, 404 families have completed the study, including both parents, as well as 209 boys and 195 girls.

The study involved a combination of questionnaires administered at several different times, from approximately one month before birth, and until the child reached 24-months of age. Some questionnaires measured parental wellbeing, depression, and anxiety symptoms. Parents also completed questionnaires measuring satisfaction, happiness, or negative experience within their spousal relationship. In addition, they completed questionnaires measuring their child’s wellbeing, including evaluations of emotional or conduct problems, as appropriate to the child’s age.

Mother’s prenatal stress associated with externalizing problems

The results show that the mothers’ prenatal stress was directly linked to externalizing problems in the child at 24-months of age. These include problematic behaviors such as physical aggression, disobeying rules, or other ways of directing their feelings and thoughts onto other people and things. These effects were seen even when the scientists controlled for history of depression and anxiety, and poor postnatal wellbeing.

Father’s prenatal stress associated with socioemotional problems

Fathers’ prenatal stress was directly associated with socioemotional problems at the 14-months of age. These, in turn, were linked to externalizing problems at 24-months of age. Symptoms of poorer wellbeing were shown to be stable throughout the transition to parenthood. Thus, it is particularly surprising that prenatal wellbeing measures were directly related to such outcomes.

The researchers suggest that, while genetics may indeed play a role in explaining the father-child link, it may not explain it fully. The experiment controlled for postnatal effects, thus reducing the possibility of social effects. Nevertheless, these effects were shown to go over and above the effects of having a history of depression or anxiety, which is believed to be a genetic marker for predisposition.

The researchers argue that it is possible that the fathers’ lowered wellbeing affected the mother. This exposure to prenatal stress may have affected the child in the womb. It has previously been shown that, in children who have been adopted, maternal depression during pregnancy was nevertheless associated with later externalizing problems.

Spousal conflict links parental wellbeing to children’s emotional development

Parental wellbeing was associated with internalizing problems (e.g. feeling sad, scared, anxious, not talking, etc.) at 24-months. However, this effect was fully mediated by the couple’s relationship quality. Thus, it supports previous studies which showed that conflict between the parents is associated with later psychosocial detriments in the child.

Importantly, these results demonstrate the effect remains even when controlling for postnatal stressors. Externalizing problems, however, were shown to not be mediated in the same way.

It is essential to note that the study focused on the first two years of life, which does not necessarily imply a lasting effect into later years and even adulthood. While it is likely that effects will translate into later years, it is impossible to draw conclusions from this study as to what these effects will be. The researchers note that a different study, which focused on psychosocial problems at a later age, found that couples’ conflict was not related to a specific detriment, but rather more broad effects on psychopathology.

Improving support for first-time parents may benefit child development

Nevertheless, these results are exceptionally significant, as they show a direct link between prenatal stress, in particular, and in either parent, can be related to a child’s psychological wellbeing. According to the researchers, the results imply that there is a need for support systems directed at first-time parents. Counselling, for instance, or education, can potentially improve the lives of mothers and fathers, as well as improving their relationship. In turn, this may positively impact the lives of their children, reducing psychopathology and socioemotional suffering.

Written by Maor Bernshtein

Reference: Hughes, C., Devine, R.T., Mesman, J., & Blair, C. ‘Parental wellbeing, couple relationship quality and children’s behavior problems in the first two years of life.’ Development & Psychopathology; 6 August 2019; DOI: 10.1017/S0954579419000804


Image by BRUNA BRUNA from Pixabay


Maor Bernshtein
Maor Bernshtein
Maor is currently working on his BSc in psychology from York University in Toronto, Canada. He is interested in psychological research and likes to analyze results and apply them to everyday life. Maor has previously volunteered for The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and is passionate about bringing psychological knowledge back to the people. He hopes that others can benefit from psychological insights through his work and improve their overall life and well-being.


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