Thursday, September 12, 2019

Mothers’ Stress Early in Life Found to Negatively Impact Their Children

A study in AJP in Advance provides further evidence that the detrimental effects of adverse life experiences can carry across generations. Researchers found that children of mothers who experienced stressful events during childhood had greater biological signs of stress and were more likely to have behavioral problems at 18 months.

“[O]ur data, when combined with findings from other studies, confirm maternal life-course experiences as a potent predictor of offspring mental and physical well-being,” wrote Kyle Esteves, M.P.H., of Tulane University School of Medicine and colleagues. “Our results suggest that screening for maternal ACEs [adverse childhood events] in obstetric, pediatric, and child mental health settings may provide an important indicator of risk for both the mother and the child, especially during infancy.”

Esteves and colleagues recruited 237 pregnant women for the study. During a prenatal assessment, study participants were asked to indicate the presence or absence of 10 types of childhood adversity, including abuse, parental mental illness, and divorce on the Adverse Childhood Experiences questionnaire. The women also completed anxiety, depression, and stress assessments during the prenatal assessment.

The mothers and their children returned for follow-up assessments when the children were 4, 12, and 18 months. At these visits, the researchers screened the mothers for postnatal depression and collected cheek swabs from the children for telomere analysis. Telomeres are the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, and their length is considered a biomarker of biological stress and aging (shorter telomeres are associated with a broad range of age-related diseases). Child behavior was also assessed at the 18-month visit.

The final analysis included 155 mother-child pairs who completed at least two of the three assessments (103 pairs completed all three assessments). The results showed that higher scores on the Adverse Childhood Experiences questionnaire in mothers correlated with shorter telomeres in the children at all time points. Higher scores also correlated with more externalizing problems (for example, temper tantrums) in the children at 18 months, but not internalizing problems (for example, being quiet and withdrawn). Maternal depression also increased the risk of externalizing problems and internalizing problems; however, higher Adverse Childhood Experiences scores remained associated with shorter telomeres and more externalizing problems, even when accounting for maternal postnatal depression.

“Encouraging the widespread utilization of practical screening tools that have clinical utility and capture stressors across the life course and the broader environment in which children develop may enhance our ability to understand the origins of early mental illness and the effectiveness, rather than the efficacy, of current intervention and prevention efforts,” Esteves and colleagues noted. Additionally, such efforts could help identify ways to buffer the negative effects of maternal early adversity, they added.

For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “Researchers Tackle Complexity of Intergenerational Stress Transmission.”

(Image: iStock/nattrass)

Follow Psychiatric News on Twitter!

And check out the new Psychiatric News Brief on Alexa-enabled devices.


The content of Psychiatric News does not necessarily reflect the views of APA or the editors. Unless so stated, neither Psychiatric News nor APA guarantees, warrants, or endorses information or advertising in this newspaper. Clinical opinions are not peer reviewed and thus should be independently verified.