Stress During Pregnancy May Affect Children's Motor Development


New research suggests that stress experienced by mothers during pregnancy is related to their children's behavior, as well as mental and cognitive outcomes in middle childhood and into adolescence.

Researchers from the University of Notre Dame Australia and the Telethon Kids Institute looked at the relationship between maternal pregnancy stress and children's motor development and found that mothers who experienced more stressful events during their pregnancies had children who scored lower on a test of movement competence.

For the study, researchers collected and analyzed data from 2,900 primarily Caucasian Australian mothers. When the women were 18 weeks pregnant, they were asked to complete a questionnaire about stressful events during their pregnancies. These events included financial hardship, losing a close relative or friend, separation or divorce, marital problems, problems with the pregnancy, losing a job, and moving residences. The moms completed the same questionnaire when they were 34 weeks pregnant.

When the children born of those pregnancies were 10, 14, and 17 years old, they were assessed on their overall motor development and coordination using a 10-item movement test. The test measured children's hand strength as well as their ability to touch a finger to one's nose and then back to the index finger, distance jump, walk along a line heel to toe, and stand on one foot. The test also measured their ability to move small beads from one box to another, thread beads onto a rod, tap a finger over 10 seconds, turn a nut onto a bolt, and slide a rod along a bar as slowly as possible. Children were grouped according to those born to mothers who experienced no stress during pregnancy, those born to moms who experienced fewer than three stressful events during their pregnancies, and those born to moms who experienced three or more stressful events during pregnancy

Low motor development has been linked to poorer short- and long-term mental and physical health outcomes, so it is important to assess the early risk factors to provide early intervention and support. Children with low motor competence can have difficulty in everyday life with fine and gross motor tasks such as writing, throwing, and running. However, with intervention and support, this can be improved in a number of cases.

"Given our findings on the importance of mothers' emotional and mental health on a wide range of developmental and health outcomes, programs aimed at detecting and reducing maternal stress during pregnancy may alert parents and health professionals to potential difficulties and improve the long-term outcomes for these children," Beth Hands, who coauthored the study, said in a statement.

The findings are detailed in the journal Child Development.

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