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Prenatal stress linked to behavioural problems in 2-year-olds, University of Cambridge researchers find

Greater support for couples before, during and after pregnancy is needed to improve outcomes for children, according to University of Cambridge researchers.

They have shown that the emotional struggles of expectant parents can be used to predict the emotional and behavioural problems in two-year-olds.

A parent telling off a toddler (15714693)
A parent telling off a toddler (15714693)

Mums who suffered from prenatal stress and anxiety were more likely to see their children display behavioural problems such as temper tantrums, restlessness and spitefulness.

And two-year-olds were more likely to be worried, unhappy and tearful, scare easily or be clingy in new situations if their parents had early postnatal relationship problems, such as a lack of happiness leading to arguments or other conflict.

The researchers from Cambridge, along with colleagues from the universities of Birmingham, New York and Leiden, was the first to study the influence of both mothers’ and fathers’ wellbeing before and after birth on children’s adjustment at 14 and 24 months of age.

Professor Claire Hughes from Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research, lead author of the study published in Development & Psychopathology, said: “For too long, the experiences of first-time dads has either been side-lined or treated in isolation from that of mums. This needs to change because difficulties in children’s early relationships with both mothers and fathers can have long-term effects.

“We have already shared our findings with the NCT (National Childbirth Trust) and we encourage the NHS and other organisations to reconsider the support they offer.”

The study looked at 438 first-time expectant mothers and fathers from the East of England, New York State in the US and the Netherlands, who were followed up at four, 14 and 24 months after birth.

Prof Hughes said: “Our findings highlight the need for earlier and more effective support for couples to prepare them better for the transition to parenthood.”

While genetic factors are likely to play a role, the study accounted for parents’ mental health difficulties before their first pregnancy and after their child’s birth.

There has been growing evidence of the importance of mental health for expectant and new mums, but the study highlights the need to extend this to expectant fathers.

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