Parent mental health can influence the early arrival of babies, MCRI research finds

by Freya Lucas

October 14, 2020

The mental health of both mothers and fathers has been found to be associated with an increased risk that their baby will be born premature, a new study conducted by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) has found

 

Published in EClinicalMedicine, the study found that men with persistent mental health problems through adolescence and young adulthood were more likely to have a baby born premature, and women with anxiety and depression during pregnancy were more likely to have a preterm birth. 

 

The MCRI researchers worked alongside Deakin University’s Dr Elizabeth Spry to gain deeper understandings into the connection between mental health and premature birth, a domain of causality which was previously unknown.

 

The study involved 398 women and 267 men from the Victorian Intergenerational Health Cohort Study (VIHCS), who were assessed over 15 years for anxiety and depressive symptoms from adolescence to young adulthood and during subsequent pregnancies.

 

Dr Spry said that fathers were often neglected in research on children’s early growth and development.

 

“We found that men with persistent mental health symptoms in the decades leading up to pregnancy were more likely to have premature babies. Our study joins growing evidence of the important role that fathers play in the health and development of their children, and suggests that these links begin well before babies are conceived,” she said.

 

As a result of the bulk of research on children’s early development having focused on mothers, public health recommendations are also almost entirely focused on what mums should and shouldn’t do when planning pregnancy or having a child. In contrast, researchers said, men receive very little guidance or support.

 

Dr Claire Wilson, from King’s College London, was a co-lead on the work, and noted that mental health “may affect parental reproductive biology and antenatal pathways and can have an impact on genetic and environmental influences such as substance use and nutrition, which could be linked to a baby’s development”. 

 

Despite pre-term birth being a leading cause of infant deaths worldwide, the underlying causes have been largely unknown. 

 

MCRI Professor George Patton said the findings further strengthened the need for expanding preconception mental health care to both men and women, prior to them becoming parents.

 

“The findings emphasise a need for coordinated care between child and adolescent, adult and specialist perinatal health services,” he said.

 

“Intervention in adolescence is likely to yield benefits not only for parents’ own continuing mental health, but also for their child’s development, both by reducing the risk of premature birth and promoting positive engagement and nurturing care across the early years of life.”

 

The findings are of particular interest, he continued, given the mental health outcomes arising in the broader community as a result of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns. 

 

“Rates of anxiety and depression have risen markedly in adolescents and young adults across the course of the pandemic,” he said. “Many problems will resolve but there is a possibility that some will continue given ongoing economic disruption and unemployment. More than ever, we need research to track young parents through their pregnancies and beyond.”

 

Researchers from Deakin University, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, University of Melbourne, Royal Women’s Hospital, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health and the University of Bristol also contributed to the parental study findings, which may be accessed here

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