Depression during pregnancy does not lead to emotional or behavioural problems in children in a ground-breaking discovery that could relieve millions of women of a particularly cruel condition, experts said.
As many as one in four expectant mothers become depressed and many fear this will effect the development of the embryo and foetus, leading to problems in childhood that may even persist into adulthood. But researchers have found these fears – and the guilt often attached – appear to be unfounded.
A far-reaching study has found no evidence that prenatal depression leads to anxiety, sadness, bad behaviour or difficulty managing emotions in offspring.
Instead any such problems come from genes and the circumstances in which the child find themselves, the study found.
Study author Tom McAdams, from King’s College London, said: “This should be welcome news as it suggests that prenatal depression is unlikely to have a long-lasting negative effect on their child’s emotional and behavioural development.”
The findings were welcomed by Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts, who said it could remove a significant weight felt by many pregnant women.
“Conversations on Mumsnet show that women with prenatal depression can worry a great deal about their baby’s wellbeing,” Ms Roberts said. “In that respect it’s a particularly cruel condition.
“Of course, mother’s mental health is vitally important in its own right, but it’s welcome that healthcare professionals will be able to reassure women on this specific score.”
The findings also call into question the effect of neurodevelopment in the womb more generally, suggesting the developing child may be much less affected by non-physical factors such as the mother’s mental state than previously thought. This is in contrast to physical factors such as smoking and alcohol intake, which are known to have a bearing on birth weight.
The researchers were reluctant to draw too many conclusions about the broader implications of their research.
However, Dr McAdams did suggest it raised some questions about a baby’s time in the womb.
“People view pregnancies as this incredibly sensitive period in time and I don’t think we know if that is the case,” he said. “My personal theory is that these experiences would have to be quite extreme to have a very direct and big and long lasting effect on a developing child.”