Study: Mental Health of Both Moms and Dads Affects Baby During Pregnancy

Turns out, expectant parents' stress and relationship problems can affect baby while still in the womb.
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ByStephanie Grassullo
Associate Editor
Aug 2019
pregnant woman with partner, hands touching her belly
Photo: Sigrid Olsson / Getty Images

Expectant parents’ stress and mental health during pregnancy may be responsible for their baby-to-be’s emotional problems when they’re a toddler, a new study says.

The study was published in Development & Psychopathology and drew on experiences from 440 first-time expectant mothers and fathers who were followed up at 4, 14 and 24 months after birth. These parents were from the East of England, New York State and the Netherlands. After analyzing the soon-to-be parents, they found that the prenatal wellbeing of first-time moms had a direct impact on the behavior of their children by the time the kids were two years old. Mothers 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.

Another interesting takeaway was the effect of a couple’s prenatal relationship on their child after birth, specifically for partners experiencing problems with each other, including unhappiness, frequent arguments and other conflicts. When their child reached two years old, the youngster was more likely to exhibit emotional problems in new situations. These problems ranged from worrying, sadness, crying frequently and being easily frightened and clingy. While there have been previous links between child outcomes and parental wellbeing, this study looked at couples, tracked parental wellbeing in both parents over an extended period of time and focused on child behavior in the first two years of life.

We’re finally starting to see more evidence promoting the importance of mental health support for expectant and new mothers, but this study highlights the need to extend this support to expectant fathers, and even a couple’s relationship as a whole.

"For too long, the experiences of first-time dads have either been side-lined or treated in isolation from that of moms,” says lead author Claire Hughes, a professor at Cambridge’s Center for Family Research. “This needs to change because difficulties in children’s early relationships with both mothers and fathers can have long-term effects.”

There’s a lot on your and your partner’s mind leading up to baby’s arrival, and things like getting your finances in order, finding a good pediatrician and stocking up on supplies in baby’s nursery quickly take precedence over your relationship with each other. But all those preparations will be for nothing if you and your partner’s mental health isn’t a top priority.

It may sound scary, but it’s true. The good news? There are simple ways to help you both get back on track. Relationship counseling is a great option for couples—whether they’re experiencing problems or just looking to nurture their connection. And if you’re not ready to commit to a counselor just yet, or simply lack the time and money, give Lasting a try. The Lasting app is a simple, easy-to-use product that empowers couples to love better. The personalized app works with you and your partner’s specific strengths and weaknesses, and provides daily quizzes and exercises to encourage a healthy relationship.

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