More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

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File under "In case you weren't stressed enough before, now you have to worry about being worried...":

Anxiety in Pregnancy Ups Kids' Behavioral Problems
Fri Jul 16, 2004
by Alison McCook

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Women who are chronically stressed out during the middle of a pregnancy are more likely to give birth to children who develop behavioral problems later in life, researchers reported Friday.

The investigators found that women who were very anxious between the 12th and 22nd weeks of their pregnancies were more likely to have children who were also anxious and showed symptoms of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

However, anxiety that occurred later in pregnancy did not appear to influence children's behavior.

Study author Dr. Bea R. H. Van den Bergh explained that women who were highly anxious often had trouble coping with the daily stresses and strains of normal life. For instance, some were struggling with interpersonal relations at work, or because they were living with their in-laws, she said.

She cautioned that children were affected when women experienced prolonged bouts of anxiety, and women should not fear that if they feel anxious for one minute during pregnancy, their children will suffer.

"It is not so that every little stress or anxious feeling has an immediate effect; it is the cumulative effect that is bad," she said.

However, to minimize the amount of time pregnant women spend stressed, Van den Bergh recommended that they try to relax as much as possible during stressful situations.

In addition, friends and family should also try to work together to help women stay relaxed, noted the researcher, who is based at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium.

"The partner and larger family and even the society have to take their responsibility," she said. "Stress is not only an individual problem."

Previous research has shown that a mother's stress in pregnancy can influence her child in a variety of ways. For instance, studies have linked anxiety in pregnancy to children's risk of hyperactivity, emotional problems, and sleeping and feeding difficulties.

In the current study, published in the journal Child Development, Van den Bergh and her co-author asked 71 women to complete questionnaires repeatedly during pregnancy to measure their stress levels, then interviewed both mothers and their first-born children 8 or 9 years later.

None of the women had been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder or been treated for an anxiety disorder.

Nonetheless, the investigators found that women who were the most anxious during mid-pregnancy were more likely to give birth to children who developed ADHD symptoms, anxiety and behavioral problems such as acting out.

These findings persisted even after the researchers removed the influence of parents' education levels, a mother's anxiety after pregnancy and other potential influences.

Van den Bergh explained that people release stress hormones when they are stressed, and these chemicals may somehow influence fetal brain development, and a child's later behavior.

SOURCE: Child Development, July/August 2004.
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