More evidence links parental mental health to children’s outcomes

Matt Woodley

13/10/2020 3:49:11 PM

Depression and anxiety in mums-to-be increases asthma risk in their kids, while parental mental health concerns raise the chance of premature birth.

Couple looking at ultrasound
The mental health concerns of prospective parents can potentially have lasting health impacts on their children.

These findings are derived from two recently released studies and add to a growing bank of evidence linking parental psychological health with poorer health outcomes in their children.
The link between maternal mental health and asthma, along with the potential impact it can have on babies’ sleeping patterns, has been well established.
However, a new study published in Thorax has shed more light on the issue and shown the risk of later-life respiratory disease is likely programmed in the womb, rather than necessarily influenced by as yet unmeasured genetic, social or environmental factors.
Previously, psychological distress during pregnancy had been associated with increased risks of respiratory disease in pre-schoolers, but it was not known whether this association persisted into later childhood.
But the latest study suggests this risk can extend in affected children until they are at least 10 years old, and potentially into later life. It also showed mothers’ overall psychological distress and symptoms of anxiety and depression during pregnancy were associated with a 45–92% increased risk of current asthma in their children, after adjusting for potentially influential factors.
‘Maternal overall psychological distress and depressive and anxiety symptoms during pregnancy were all associated with an increased risk of current asthma in their children, both continuously and when using clinical cut-offs,’ the researchers wrote.
‘Analysis of patterns of psychological distress showed that mostly depressive or anxiety symptoms both during and after pregnancy are associated with an increased risk of asthma in children.
‘Separating the confounders into three different groups, including lifestyle and health-related factors, socioeconomic factors and birth and early childhood factors, showed no differences in size or direction of effect estimates of the associations of maternal psychological distress with asthma in their children.’
While the study is observational in nature – and, as such, cannot establish cause – the researchers suggest there are plausible biological explanations for the findings. These include excess production of various hormones prompted by psychological distress, such as glucocorticoids, which are key to fetal lung development.
‘Our results may indicate an intrauterine effect of maternal psychological distress during pregnancy on fetal lung development and respiratory morbidity, rather than an effect of unmeasured genetic, social, behavioural or environmental factors,’ the researchers conclude.
A separate study, conducted by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI), also revealed the impact unresolved parental mental health concerns may have on the future health of their children.
It found men with mental health problems through adolescence and young adulthood before conceiving are more likely to have premature babies, as are women with anxiety and depression during pregnancy.
As such, the researchers said preconception mental health care for men and women should be expanded, as should coordinated care between child and adolescent, adult and specialist perinatal mental health services.
According to study co-lead Dr Elizabeth Spry, the impact of maternal and paternal mental health history on offspring preterm birth and birth weight was unknown prior to this study, and that fathers have often been neglected in research conducted on children’s early growth and development.
‘Our study joins growing evidence of the important role that fathers play in the health and development of their children, and suggests that these links begin well before babies are conceived,’ she said.
‘Most research on children’s early development has focused on mums. This means that public health recommendations are also almost entirely focused on what mums should and shouldn’t do when planning pregnancy or having a child.
‘In contrast, men receive very little guidance or support.’
The study involved 398 women and 267 men from the Victorian Intergenerational Health Cohort Study (VIHCS), who were assessed over 15 years for anxiety and depressive symptoms from adolescence to young adulthood, and during subsequent pregnancies.
Study co-lead, Dr Claire Wilson from King’s College London, said understanding how mental health problems that start in adolescence affect birth outcomes could open up new opportunities for the prevention of premature birth.
‘Mental health may affect parental reproductive biology and antenatal pathways and can have an impact on genetic and environmental influences such as substance use and nutrition, which could be linked to a baby’s development,’ she said.
‘Pre-term birth is common and is a leading cause of infant deaths worldwide, but the underlying causes have been largely unknown. Early and mid-late preterm birth can carry lifelong effects on health and development such as visual and hearing impairments and poor health and growth.’
The researchers also found intervention in adolescence is likely to yield benefits not only for parents’ own continuing mental health, but also for their child’s development, by reducing the risk of premature birth and promoting positive engagement and nurturing care across the early years of life.
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antenatal care asthma mental health pregnancy premature birth

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