Women who experience stress during pregnancy could be more likely to have children with personality disorders, according to new research.
In the first study of its kind, researchers looked at the link between personality disorders and stress in pregnancy and found children were at risk if their mothers experienced any level of stress while pregnant.
Children had more than three times the risk of developing a personality disorder by the age of 30 if their mother experienced stress, compared with children whose mothers had no stress.
Children whose mothers had severe stress were 10 times more likely to have a disorder.
The findings held true even if factors like whether the mother smoked, was depressed or had a prior history of mental illness, were taken into account.
The authors of the study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, suggested developing brains of children could be affected by stress.
Other factors in developing a personality disorder include a poor relationship with parents after birth, or suffering a trauma like loss of a parent or sexual abuse.
Dr Trudi Seneviratne, chairwoman of the perinatal faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “Pregnancy can be a stressful time and this study shows the importance of ensuring mums-to-be have access to the mental health support they need.
“NHS England has dramatically improved access to perinatal mental health services in recent times and these findings show how important it is for NHSE to continue investing in this area.
“The study does not account for important factors that affect stress and child development – such as financial situation, parenting style and sexual trauma – which we know contribute to the development of severe mental illness, including personality disorders.”
The study included 3,626 women in Helsinki, Finland. They answered six questionnaires about their mental health during pregnancy, with detailed questions on their stress levels.
Of the babies born, 40 developed a diagnosed personality disorder.
Ross Brannigan, lead author from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, said: “This study highlights the importance of providing mental health and stress support to both pregnant women and families during the antenatal and postnatal period.
“It is also important to note that the study shows an association between stress during pregnancy and the development of personality disorders.
“More research is necessary to prove a causal relationship.”
Dr Livia Martucci told Sky News that the UK is in a “much better place” than many other countries in terms of pre-natal mental health care for women, but that more research would help continue improvements.
She said that it had now been shown that babies’ emotional development would be impacted by their mothers’ health, not just during pregnancy but in the months after their birth. It can lead to poorer cognitive performance and education performance, she said, having a significant impact on their lives.
One in 20 people in the UK are thought to have a personality disorder.
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