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Prenatal Stress: A Predictor of Childhood Behavior Disorders

10 August 2013


Background: Behavior disorders in children are disruptive to the lives of those who are close to the child and can affect life in the home, school or social setting. One theory is that maternal prenatal psychosocial stress can potentiate such disruptive behavior. Several animal studies have found a correlation between prenatal stress and child development. This systematic review evaluates observational studies of prenatal psychosocial stress in humans and the behavior of their offspring. Does psychosocial stress in pregnant mothers lead to behavior disorders in their children?

Method: An extensive search of medical literature was conducted using databases of Medline Ovid, Web of Science, CINAHL, and Google Scholar using the keywords: child behavior disorders, life change events, pregnancy and psychosocial stress. Studies meeting exclusion and inclusion criteria were evaluated for quality using the GRADE system.

Results: Three observational studies were thoroughly evaluated and are included in this review. One study found a correlation between prenatal stress and temperament and problem behaviors of toddlers. One study suggests evidence supports a link between prenatal bereavement and the development of ADHD in offspring. One in vitro fertilization study examined the nature vs. nurture question by comparing genetically related mothers to genetically unrelated mothers, and assessing the correlation between prenatal stress and behavior problems of their offspring.

Conclusion: Each study suggests the correlation between prenatal psychosocial stress and behavior disorders in children but each study has some level of limitation leading to inconclusive evidence. Understanding the correlation between prenatal stress and child behavior, medical providers could aid in preventing the behavior problems. Identifying those mothers who are stressed and providing them with resources to alleviate the stress could potentially mitigate the undesired behavior in the child. More studies are needed to examine the theory that prenatal stress effects behavior development in children.


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