Prenatal anxiety effects on children’s emotions

Maternal mental health problems during #pregnancy and the postnatal period are a major public health issues. Despite evidence that symptoms of both depression and anxiety are common during pregnancy and postpartum, the impact of maternal anxiety on the child has received relatively less attention than the impact of maternal depression.

#Depression and #anxiety are the most common mental health problems during pregnancy, with approximately 12% of women experiencing depression and 13% experiencing anxiety at some point, with many women experiencing both. It is well established that maternal mental health difficulties in pregnancy have been associated with preterm labour, poor infant outcomes, and greater cognitive, behavioural, and interpersonal problems in young children.


A review prospectively examined the impact of maternal anxiety in the prenatal period on children’s emotional outcomes. The database search was restricted to human research articles and written in English. All of the studies involved community-based samples of mother-child dyads. Sample sizes ranged from 71 to 7,944 mother-child pairs. Ten studies reported mean maternal ages at pregnancy in a range from 26.8 to 31.8 years old and children ranged from 14 months to 13 years.

A number of different measures were used to evaluate maternal anxiety including self-report scales and standardized clinical interviews.

After controlling for covariates, and when mothers reported on child outcomes, 4 studies found prenatal anxiety to be associated with elevated offspring emotional problems when children were aged between 2 and 5 years. Similarly, Pickles et al., found an initial effect of prenatal anxiety on offspring emotional problems at 3.5 years of colleagues. It was found that compared to children of non-anxious mothers, the offspring of socially anxious mothers were themselves more likely to be diagnosed with social anxiety disorders.


It was found that prenatal anxiety, measured at 32 weeks gestation, was associated with a small increase in children’s emotional problems at 7–8 years of age. Similarly, O’Connor et al. found that high levels of prenatal anxiety, measured at 32-week gestation, predicted emotional problems for boys and girls aged 6–7 years after adjustment for the covariates.


The association between maternal prenatal anxiety and offspring emotional problems in late childhood (approximately 9–12 years of age) was assessed by two studies. The studies found that prenatal anxiety measured at 12–22 weeks gestation was a significant predictor of children’s, but not mothers’ or teachers’ reports of emotional problems in late childhood.


Overall it is estimated that children that have mothers with prenatal social anxiety had higher levels of emotional problems than children of non-anxious controls. When examining whether this relationship was moderated by child attachment style, the effect of maternal social anxiety was significant for securely attached children but not for those who were insecurely attached.

Source: The impact of maternal prenatal and postnatal anxiety on children’s emotional problems: a systematic review
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