Massage and other touch therapies have been shown to reduce stress and depression in pregnant women. New research indicates that stress experienced during pregnancy is related to increased risk of future behavioral problems in children.

Researchers from Perth’s Telethon Institute for Child Health Research found that common stressful events, including financial and relationship problems, difficult pregnancy, job loss and issues with other children, as well as major life stressors such as a death in the family, are linked to poor behavior in offspring.

The analysis was undertaken on data from Western Australia’s long-term cohort Raine Study, which recruited nearly 3,000 pregnant women and recorded life stress events experienced at 18 and 34 weeks of pregnancy, as well as collecting sociodemographic data, according to a press release. The mother’s experience of life stress events and child behavioral assessments were also recorded when the children were followed up at ages 2, 5, 8, 10 and 14 years using a questionnaire called the Child Behaviour Checklist.

Lead researcher and psychologist Monique Robinson said the type of stress experienced was of less importance than the number of stresses, and there was no specific risk associated with the timing of these stress events—early or late—in a pregnancy.

“What we have found is that it is the overall number of stresses that is most related to child behavior outcomes,” Robinson said. “Two or fewer stresses during pregnancy are not associated with poor child behavioral development, but as the number of stresses increase to three or more, then the risks of more difficult child behavior increase.”

This study showed the percentage of women who experienced six or more stressful events was 7.6.

Robinson said further research is needed to understand the mechanisms behind how stress in pregnancy affects the developing baby, including the impact of maternal stress hormones, attachment and parenting issues and socioeconomic factors.

The study is published in the international journal Development and Psychopathology.

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