Prenatal Depression Unlikely to Affect Unborn Babies

Depression during pregnancy is unlikely to directly impact babies in the womb and lead to emotional or behavioural problems after birth, according to a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry.

Up to 1 in 5 expectant mothers will experience depression during pregnancy, with such episodes being associated with the development of emotional and behavioural problems in childhood. Previously, scientists had interpreted this association as potentially comprising a ‘fetal programming’ effect, whereby exposure to prenatal depression in the womb has a direct effect on the developing fetus, ultimately causing the development of problems later in childhood.

However, the current study revisited this association while accounting for 2 important issues not previously considered: (1) mother and child are genetically related, so associations may be caused by the transmission of genes associated with emotional problems; and (2) mothers who experience prenatal depression are likely to experience depression as children are growing up, so associations may be attributable to exposure to maternal depression in childhood.

Tom McAdams, MD, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London, London, United Kingdom, and colleagues analysed a Norwegian sample of 22,195 mothers with 35,299 children, in which many mothers were related to one another in different ways (identical twins, non-identical twins, sisters, half-sisters) as were the children (twins, siblings, half-siblings, cousins, half-cousins).

The researchers used this information to identify how important genetic transmission was in explaining associations, finding that the association between prenatal depression and child behaviour problems could be entirely explained by genetic transmission.

The association with child emotional problems was explained by the combination of genetic transmission and exposure to maternal depressive symptoms in childhood. Crucially, this suggests that prenatal depressive symptoms in mothers do not play a major role in the development of emotional and behavioural problems in children.

“Women who experience depression during their pregnancy often fear that their depression will have detrimental effects on their developing child,” said Dr. McAdams. “This study 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.”

Reference: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30225-6

SOURCE: King’s College London
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