Expectant parents’ emotional struggles are linked to emotional and behavioral issues in toddlers, according to a new study led by the University of Cambridge in the UK.
The researchers say their findings highlight a pressing need for greater support for couples before, during and after pregnancy to improve outcomes for children.
The study is the first to examine the influence of both mothers’ and fathers’ well-being before and after birth on children’s adjustment at 14 and 24 months of age.
“For too long, the experiences of first-time dads has either been sidelined or treated in isolation from that of mums,” said lead author Dr. Claire Hughes, a professor from Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research. “This needs to change because difficulties in children’s early relationships with both mothers and fathers can have long-term effects.
The research, published in the journal Development & Psychopathology, drew on the experiences of 438 first-time expectant mothers and fathers who were followed up at 4, 14 and 24 months after delivery. These parents were recruited in the East of England, New York State and the Netherlands.
The findings show that the prenatal well-being of first-time mothers had a direct impact on the behavior of their children by the time they were two years old. Moms who suffered from stress and anxiety in the prenatal period were more likely to see their child display behavioral problems such as temper tantrums, restlessness and spitefulness.
The researchers also found that two-year-olds were more likely to exhibit emotional problems (such as being worried, unhappy and tearful; scaring easily; or being clingy in new situations) if their parents had been having early postnatal relationship problems.
These parental problems ranged from a general lack of happiness in the relationship to fights and other kinds of conflict.
“Our findings highlight the need for earlier and more effective support for couples to prepare them better for the transition to parenthood,” said Hughes.
While there is growing evidence for the importance of mental health support for expectant and new mothers, the new study highlights the need to extend this support to expectant fathers and to go beyond individual well-being to consider the quality of new mothers’ and fathers’ couple relationships.
The researchers acknowledge that genetic factors are likely to play a role, but they accounted for parents’ mental health difficulties prior to their first pregnancy and after their child’s birth.
“Our data demonstrate that mental health problems during pregnancy have a unique impact on children’s behavior problems,” said coauthor Dr. Rory Devine, a developmental psychologist at the University of Birmingham.
Using standardized questionnaires and in-person interviews, participating mothers and fathers reported on their symptoms of anxiety and depression in the third trimester of pregnancy and when their child was 4, 14 and 24 months old. During each of these visits, parents also completed standardized questionnaire measures of couple relationship quality and children’s emotions and behavior.
“There has been an assumption that it’s really difficult to get dads involved in research like this. But our study draws on a relatively large sample and is unique because both parents answered the same questions at every stage, which enabled us to make direct comparisons,” said Hughes.
Source: University of Cambridge