Dr. Ian Coleman studied the effect of stress on pregnancy. Photo: CC, Tawny Nina.
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U of O professor studied effect of various events on child outcomes

A new study by Ian Colman, an associate professor of the school of epidemiology and public health at the University of Ottawa, has found that lower levels of prenatal stress can reduce the risk of behavioural issues in children. While this outcome has been hinted at before, this is the first initiative to examine a large cohort study to test the theory.

“There’s been a growing body of research suggesting that what’s happening very early in life can affect lifelong health,” said Colman. “We need a more solid evidence base on that, which is what’s unique about this study.”

The study was published in the Biological Psychiatry journal and conducted in collaboration with researchers from the University of Bristol, who examined 10,184 mother-child pairs from the U.K.-based Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children.

The researchers adjusted for maternal depression and anxiety, which can contain unknown genetic components that are hard to separate, and focused solely on exposure to stressful events.

“This tells us a little bit more about the origins of mental illness,” said Colman. “The more we know about the causes of mental illness, the more we can do to try and prevent it.”

Colman and his colleagues found that specific, stressful life events a mother goes through can influence whether or not her child develops certain behavioural issues. The survey data that the researchers used had 42 different stressful life events, ranging from minor to severe.

For example, whether someone in the family had died or become ill, whether one of the parents had lost their job or had problems at work, or a conflict between the child’s parents.

The presence of stressful factors in the mother made it more likely that the children would have a conduct disorder—a hot temper, fighting with or bullying other children, excessive lying or cheating—or be hyperactive—restlessness, overactivity, a short attention span, etc.

According to Colman, the presence of such behavioural issues in children can lead to problems later in life as well, such as having more trouble in school and problems with social relationships.

In his earlier research, Coleman found that these children were also more likely to have problems later in life, being more likely to be unemployed, divorced, and have financial and psychiatric problems.

Colman hopes that further research can lead to happier parents and children in the future. “The more we can do to support pregnant moms, the better chance a child’s going to get at a health life.”

As for what mothers can do to avoid the stress that can lead to these problems, Colman says the strategies can vary, though there are some common themes.

“I think the one thing that’s probably most important is being surrounded by a really supportive network,” he said. “That network is going to help the mom manage stressful events, and hopefully that same network is going to be around to help the developing child.”