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‘Depression in pregnancy alters male infant behaviour - but mothers don’t notice’

6 December 2019

Pregnant woman

Women who have symptoms of depression and anxiety during pregnancy do not report concerns with their infant sons’ behaviour - but do with daughters, a Cardiff University study has found.

As many as one in four women experience depression and/or anxiety in pregnancy and evidence suggests it can increase the risk of emotional and behavioural issues, particularly in boys.

The study focused on the children of mothers who had reported symptoms of depression and anxiety in pregnancy. Specifically, researchers looked at what early indicators of difficulties were apparent in these children at the age of one.

Researchers identified language delays and evidence of emotional difficulties in male infants but not in female infants, similar to findings from other studies.

The surprising finding of this study was that the affected mothers did not pick up on their infant sons’ difficulties - but did perceive issues in their daughters.

Professor Rosalind John, senior author on the study, said: “A key finding of our study was that mothers reporting higher depression and anxiety symptoms in pregnancy reported poor bonding, higher aggression and lower soothability for their infant only when the infant was female, and not when the infant was male.

“In contrast, our objective assessment found that male infants were more affected by maternal prenatal anxiety or depression, but this was not picked up by their mothers.”

Professor Stephanie van Goozen, co-author on the study, from the University’s School of Psychology, said: "Mothers who have emotional issues themselves do not recognise that their sons have problems too; if that is the case, their sons do not get the support they might need early in life.”

Professor John, from the School of Biosciences, said despite girls appearing to be unaffected as infants, there could be issues later on.

Although female infants appear to be more resilient early in life, depression and anxiety in the mother could have a negative impact on the mother-daughter relationship later on, increasing the risk of daughters developing difficulties later in life.

Professor Rosalind John Head of Biomedicine Division, Professor

The mothers were participating in the Grown In Wales study which examines the relationship between prenatal mood symptoms, placental genomic characteristics and offspring outcomes.

They were asked to complete questionnaires on their one-year-old infants, including questions around bonding satisfaction and infant temperament.

Researchers then invited the mothers to bring their infants in to a research setting for an independent assessment. This involved them watching the children play with toys and interact with their mother.

In all, 113 mothers completed the questionnaire and 76 of those attended the infant assessment.

The study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, focused on women who had elective caesarean deliveries. Professor John said more research was needed to replicate these findings in other groups of mothers, and to include fathers, and also to understand the gender bias.

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