Pregnancy zen: Lower stress reduces risk of behavioral issues in kids

Mothers who experience significant prenatal stress may have to deal with a lot more stress in years to come, as they might unintentionally be increasing their child’s future risk for behavioral issues.

Already, parenting is a complicated journey full of questions — and when a beloved child begins to show signs of a behavioral disorder, a parent’s challenges become even more difficult to navigate.

Minimize prenatal stress to reduce risk of behavioral issues in kids

Expectant mothers may want to consider adopting today’s trend towards stress management, in light of new research from the University of Ottawa pointing to its ability to lower the risk of problematic behavior in their offspring.

Dr. Ian Colman, associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Behavior Medicine, led a team of researchers in examining data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. The team found that mothers who experience significant prenatal stress may be increasing their child’s risk for behavioral issues.

“Mothers who are exposed to high levels of stress during pregnancy have kids who are more than twice as likely to have chronic symptoms of hyperactivity and conduct disorder,” Dr. Colman says of the team’s published findings.

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“Hyperactivity is a symptom of ADHD, and about 10% of school-age children are affected by ADHD or conduct disorder,” he says. “These disorders can lead to poor results in school and difficulties in their relationships with family and friends.”

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A growing child’s future behavior problems

Behavioural disorders such as those seen by the researchers are characterized by aggressive or antisocial behavior, high activity levels, and difficulty inhibiting behavior. They are also associated with school failure, substance use/abuse, and criminal activity, according to the paper.

A mother’s stress can alter brain development in the fetus, and it is believed these changes may be long-lasting — or even permanent, says Dr Colman.

The team was unique in its approach: it studied the effects of specific stressors on participants, as opposed to gauging overall stress levels. Participants reported stressful events, such as problems at work, the illness of a relative, or an argument with a partner, family or friend. “Generally speaking, we found that the higher the stress, the higher the symptoms,” Dr. Colman says.

“We can’t avoid most stressful events in our lives and since we can’t always prevent them, the focus should be on helping mothers manage stress in order to give their children the best start in life.”

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