Maternal Mood During Pregnancy And Child Development

Nour Yaktine
· 5 min read

Research shows an association between mothers’ mood during pregnancy and children’s developmental outcomes

Medical research has long pointed out the importance of staying physically healthy during pregnancy for both the mother and the child’s health. Pregnant women are encouraged to maintain a healthy diet and to avoid exposure to viruses in order to protect themselves and their child. In more recent years, with mental health gaining more attention, researchers have been also promoting mothers’ psychological health during pregnancy. These recommendations stem from research results highlighting the negative impact of maternal depression, anxiety, and stress on child development, affecting psychological, cognitive and behavioral development. An example of negative outcomes in non-human primates that have been empirically linked to maternal prenatal depression, anxiety, and stress include altered fetal behavior such as heart rate of motor activity. In humans, maternal depression, anxiety, and stress during pregnancy have been linked with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cognitive impairment, emotional problems, among other poor neurodevelopmental outcomes in children.

But how can stress affect or even be communicated to the fetus? A commonly studied mechanism is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. In this model, it is believed that mood can elevate pregnant women’s cortisol, which in turn can cross the placenta, affecting the fetus. From an immunological perspective, maternal distress is believed to cause inflammation, which in turn could alter fetal development.

The fact that maternal distress during pregnancy has been clinically and biologically shown to negatively impact child development highlights the importance of maintaining psychological well-being during pregnancy. These findings also shed light on the necessity for healthcare practitioners to screen for depression, anxiety, and stress during pregnancy in order to treat the symptoms and prevent malfunctions in child development.

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In a recent study evaluating maternal antenatal mood and child development, Milgrom et al. (2019) found that treating depression and anxiety during pregnancy improved neurodevelopmental outcomes in children. In the study, 54 pregnant women were enrolled. All participants were less than 30 weeks pregnant and showed depression and anxiety symptoms during screening. Half of the participants were treated using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and the other half received treatment as usual (TAU) and were considered a comparison group. Information on mothers and their children’s mental health was collected at the beginning of the study, 2 years and 5 years later. Results showed that mothers who were treated for depression and anxiety during pregnancy had children with better psychological, cognitive, behavioral and developmental outcomes. For example, children of treated mothers were found to have better reactivity and self-regulation in response to emotional distress or unexpected change, better motor development, and cognitive performance such as processing speed. Moreover, mothers who completed therapy sessions during pregnancy were found to have lower parental stress 2 years later, compared to mothers who did not. This shows that treating prenatal depression and anxiety is not only beneficial to the child, but also to the mother herself.

In sum, studies have shown that maternal distress can be transmitted from mother to child during pregnancy, negatively impacting child development. Fortunately, another line of research has also shown that treating maternal distress during pregnancy can prevent and/or improve adverse developmental outcomes in children. Therefore, healthcare providers as well as pregnant women are urged to pay close attention to depression, anxiety, and stress during pregnancy, in order to treat symptoms should they be experience. This becomes crucial for both the mother and the child’s physical and psychological health.


Milgrom, J., Holt, C. J., Bleker, L. S., Holt, C., Ross, J., Ericksen, J., Glover, V., K, J. O., de Rooij, ,S.R., & Gemmill, A. W. (2019). Maternal antenatal mood and child development: an exploratory study of treatment effects on child outcomes up to 5 years. Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, 10(2), 221-231.

O’Connor, T. G., Monk, C., & Fitelson, E. M. (2014). Practitioner Review: Maternal mood in pregnancy and child development – implications for child psychology and psychiatry. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55(2), 99-111.