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Mental health struggles during pregnancy affects toddlers' development, study finds

The researchers hope their work helps identify at-risk kids

Pregnancy and back pain concept
Photo (c) AsiaVision - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Children’s National Hospital explored how women’s mental health during pregnancy may impact their children’s development. According to their findings, women who struggle with anxiety, depression, or high levels of stress during pregnancy may be more likely to have toddlers who struggle with cognitive development. 

“By identifying the pregnant women with elevated levels of psychological distress, clinicians could recognize those babies who are at risk for later neurodevelopmental impairment and might benefit from early, targeted interventions,” said researcher Catherine Limperopoulous, Ph.D. 

How mental health impacts children’s cognition

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from healthy mothers and infants involved in a cohort study from January 2016, to October 2020, at Children’s National Hospital. The mothers completed questionnaires that assessed their mental health during pregnancy. Their babies had MRI scans and then underwent a cognitive assessment at 18 months old. 

Ultimately, the researchers identified a link between mental health struggles during pregnancy and toddlers’ cognitive development. Mothers who had stress, anxiety, or depression while pregnant were more likely to have toddlers with poorer cognitive skills. 

The researchers observed this effect on the infants’ brain scans while they were still in the womb. They noticed that the infants struggling with cognitive development were more likely to have a smaller left hippocampus region of their brains. The team attributes this to exposure to maternal stress while in the womb. 

They explained that this is likely to have an effect on toddlers’ ability to establish relationships as they continue to grow and develop. This may hinder their social-emotional skills long-term. 

Because of how strongly stress can affect pregnant women and their babies, the researchers hope these findings continue to highlight the importance of consumers taking care of their mental health. 

“We’re looking at shifting the health care paradigm and adopting these changes more broadly to better support moms,” said Dr. Limperopoulos. “What’s clear is early interventions could help moms reduce their stress, which can positively impact their symptoms and thereby their baby long after birth.” 

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