Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Maternal Stress Leads to Child Behaviour Issues

By Stephen Luntz

The number of stressful incidents during pregnancy has been correlated with behavioural problems in children up to 14 years old.

A link between a stressful pregnancy and negative outcomes is hardly surprising, but Dr Monique Robinson of Perth’s Telethon Institute for Child Health Research found that “it is the overall number of stresses that is most related to child behaviour outcomes”. The type or timing of incidents, however, did not seem to matter.

Robinson admits it is hard to measure the severity of stressful incidents so she classified stresses by cause, such as the death of a relative, financial concerns and relationship break-ups. Despite dividing these challenges in different ways, she found no sign that some caused more problems during childhood than others.

Robinson also attempted to control for socio-economic factors and problems that continued to show up after birth, although she says this can be difficult.

“Two or fewer stresses during pregnancy are not associated with poor child behavioural development but, as the number of stresses increases to three or more, then the risks of more difficult child behaviour increase,” Robinson says. More than one-third of women in the 3000-strong Raine longitudinal study suffered three or more stressful events during their pregnancy, while 7.6% suffered six or more.

Rather than stressing expectant mothers further, Robinson emphasises that the link is statistical. “Regardless of exposure to stress in the womb, a nurturing environment after birth can provide the child with enormous potential to change their course of development. This is known as ‘developmental plasticity’, which means that the brain can adapt and change as the child grows with a positive environment,” she says.

“The important message here is in how we as a community support pregnant women. If we think about people who lead stressful lives, they are most often linked with socio-economic disadvantage.”

However, Robinson acknowledges that the evidence for the effectiveness of interventions to reduce stress during pregnancy are mixed. “I think this may be because interventions are not addressing the context of the stress. For example, relationship counselling needs to take account of the pregnancy.”