Maternal depressive symptoms during pregnancy predict psychiatric problems in young children

When a mother suffers from depressive symptoms during pregnancy, her child is more likely to have psychiatric problems in early childhood, as we show in our most recent article “Maternal Depressive Symptoms During and After Pregnancy and Psychiatric Problems in Childrenpublished in the Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in January 2017.

In our large cohort study, maternal depressive symptoms during pregnancy predicted increased psychiatric problems in children.

This association was independent of maternal depressive symptoms at the time when the mother assessed the child, of perinatal and sociodemographic factors, of maternal history of depression before pregnancy, and of maternal cardiometabolic pregnancy disorders. Maternal depressive symptoms during pregnancy increased the risk of many different types of psychiatric problems in children, both internalizing problems (such as emotional problems, anxiousness and depressiveness, withdrawal, and somatic complaints) and externalizing problems (such as aggressive behavior and attention problems). Associations were similar in younger and older children. Maternal depressive symptoms were highly stable during and after pregnancy. If the mother was depressed throughout pregnancy and/or both during and after pregnancy, child psychiatric problems were especially increased.

Photo by Joe Green

Our study cohort, Prediction and Prevention of Pre-Eclampsia and Intrauterine Growth Retardation (PREDO), included 2,296 women and their children born in 2006-2010. The women were recruited to the study at their first antenatal visit at one of the ten participating antenatal clinics in Southern and Eastern Finland. Every two weeks during pregnancy, the mothers completed a questionnaire on their depressive symptoms. Child psychiatric problems were mother-rated at child age 1.9-5.9 years.

The current findings suggest that maternal depression during pregnancy is an independent risk factor for child psychiatric problems. The findings highlight the adverse effects of maternal depressive symptoms during and after pregnancy on child psychological development. Maternal depressive symptoms are very common during pregnancy, with over 20 % of pregnant women reporting clinically significant levels of depression.

Our findings suggest that assessment of maternal depressive symptoms should become a routine part of antenatal care, and interventions targeting the mental health of the expectant mother may benefit the well-being of both the mother and the child.

/ Marius Lahti
Docent, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology and Logopedics,
Faculty of Medicine, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland