In the study (published in the journal Biological Psychiatry), associate professor Ian Colman, PhD, analyzed the lifestyle of moms and their children, using data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parent and Children in Bristol, UK. “It’s a really well-known study in terms of mental health and outstanding measures,” he explains. “There were 14,000 moms and their children who were enrolled, and they’ve been followed since the early 1990s.” This meant the team had statistics which stretched over a long period of time.
Researchers asked expectant mothers to fill in regular lifestyle questionnaires starting with the moment they confirmed they were pregnant, and every so often until their child reached adulthood. They reported on events such as an illness in the family or argument with their partner, and how badly it affected them.
When Dr. Colman compared the emotional trials of the women with the behavior of their children, the results suggested a link between mothers who’d experienced stressful events, and behavior problems in their children. According to Dr. Colman: “Those who reported during their pregnancy that they had been exposed to stressful life events—and that they were severely affected by these events—had children who were more likely to have symptoms of hyperactivity and conduct disorder between the ages of 6 and 16.”
On theory is that the stress hormone cortisol could be affecting the developing fetus. “We know that when moms are really stressed, there’s a lot of cortisol running through their body,” said Dr. Colman. “This is clearly important for pregnant women, because cortisol passes the placental barrier, and that can affect the developing fetal brain.”
Of course, just because you experience stress during pregnancy doesn’t mean your child will have ADHD. But it’s worth trying to manage the demands on your life. “I think the implication from this study is that the better you can manage stress, and the better that we can help pregnant moms manage stress, that may have some longer term implications for fetal and child health.” he said.
And stress relief is not just a matter for the expectant mom. Dr. Colman firmly believes that everyone has their part to play in supporting a mom through her pregnancy:
“I think one of the best things we can do in terms of helping moms manage stress during pregnancy is to surround them with a really supportive network, because if we work together to help pregnant moms, then really we’re also helping kids get a really healthy start in life.”