Study: Mother’s Mental Health Can Affect Childhood Development

Newborn infant sleeping on bed while anxious, depressed mother sits nearby hugging her knees to her chest

Results show considerable portion of women with anxiety during pregnancy

A mother’s depression and anxiety from conception through the first year of the baby’s life is associated with negative developmental outcomes through adolescence, according to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics in September 2020.

Concerns exist over the number of women affected, as about 15% to 23% of women worldwide experience anxiety during pregnancy, while 15% deal with anxiety after childbirth. Depression through pregnancy is estimated to affect 10% of women, and 15% face postpartum depression. The burden is greater for women who are experiencing poverty or are teen parents, according to Postpartum Support International.

For the baby, the perinatal stage—defined as the time from conception through pregnancy (antenatal), birth and the first year of the baby’s life (postnatal)—is “a time of unprecedented growth and sensitivity,” the study said. That’s when exposures and early life experiences may modify development starting from when he or she is in the womb to that critical first year as a growing child and onward.

A mother experiencing depression and anxiety before and after birth was moderately linked with her child’s deficits in language and cognitive and motor development in infancy.

All of these children were more likely to exhibit behaviors that either internalized negative feelings or targeted them toward others. These kids experienced and reacted with more negative emotions and were temperamentally difficult through adolescence as well.

“In light of the pandemic, these are particularly concerning results,” said Dr. Denise Jamieson, chair of the department of gynecology and obstetrics at Emory University, who wasn’t involved in the study. “Since risk factors for perinatal depression include life stress and lack of social support, pregnant and postpartum women may be particularly vulnerable right now.

“These data that suggest that this poses risks not just for the mother, but also for her child, not just now but into adolescence, is a stark reminder that the indirect effects of COVID-19 may be long-lasting,” Jamieson added.


Editor’s note: This post was originally published on September 30, 2020 and updated on February 17, 2021.

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