Stress During Pregnancy Increases Risk Of Personality Disorders In Children, New Study Finds

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Pregnancy can be stressful, as first-time mothers are starting a new chapter of their lives that can be rife with many unknowns. And although some experts say a certain amount of stress during pregnancy is normal, a new study claims that stress during pregnancy increases the risk of personality disorders in children.

Prenatal stress in mothers can potentially create a pathway for personality disorders to manifest in their children, according to researchers from Cambridge University who published their findings in the British Journal of Psychiatry on Sept. 6 The longitudinal study — that began in July 1975 —observed over 3,620 offspring and their mothers, assessing expectant mothers with monthly prenatal questionnaires during their pregnancies. Researchers then analyzed data of their children approximately 30 years later, in 2005, according to the Daily Mail.

Outcomes suggest that children whose mothers are exposed to either moderate or sever stress during gestation are nearly three times more likely to develop a personality disorder when compared to children who are unexposed. As the levels of stress in the mothers increased, so did the likelihood of their children developing a personality disorder. Associated with the highest levels of stress, researchers found an upward of a ninefold increase in the likelihood of developing a disorder.

These findings persisted even when disregarding factors such as parental psychopathology, smoking during pregnancy, self-reported depression during pregnancy, and a variation in the number of questionnaires returned by each mother.

The research's findings are in line with the previous research that has suggested a link between prenatal stress and an increased risk of mood disorder, schizophrenia, and anxiety in kids. As such, researchers told The New York Post that there's an urgency in making mental health resources available to pregnant mothers, noting the connection between adequate prenatal care and "good mental health."

As for personality disorders, they're broadly defined as "an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture," according to the Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual on Mental Disorders (DSM-5), an authoritative guide published by the American Psychiatric Association offering the classification and definitions of mental disorders. Common personality disorders include, but are not limited to: obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, paranoid personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.

An eye-opening 2003 survey from the National Institute of Mental Health reveals 9.1% of adults in the United States age 18 and older have a personality disorder. And the most prevalent disorder in the United States is obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, which effects 7.9 percent of adults, or approximately 16.4 million individuals, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and NIH.

Although initial findings of some pilot research have suggested that intervention during pregnancy can reduce the experience of stress and anxiety in mothers, scientists from this study argue additional research is necessary. Future studies could help determine whether intervention during pregnancy can reduce the adverse effects of maternal stress on offspring, an important piece for researchers examining this important topic.