Women who experience stress in pregnancy could be more likely to have children with personality disorders, research suggests.
The first study of its kind looking at the link between personality disorders and stress in pregnancy found children were at risk if their mothers experienced any level of stress while pregnant.
Children had more than three times the risk of developing a personality disorder by age 30 if their mother experienced any level of stress or moderate stress while pregnant, when compared to children whose mothers had no stress.
And they had almost 10 times the risk if their mother suffered severe maternal stress.
The findings, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, held true even when a range of other factors – such as whether a mother smoked, felt depressed or had a prior history of mental illness – were taken into account.
The authors suggested that the developing brains of children could be affected by stress in pregnancy.
Other factors can also contribute to the development of personality disorders, such as a poor relationship with parents after birth or suffering a trauma, such as the loss of a parent or sexual abuse.
Dr Trudi Seneviratne, chairwoman of the perinatal faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “Pregnancy can be a stressful time and this study shows the importance of ensuring mums-to-be have access to the mental health support they need.
“NHS England has dramatically improved access to perinatal mental health services in recent times and these findings show how important it is for NHSE to continue investing in this area.
“The study does not account for important factors that affect stress and child development – such as financial situation, parenting style and sexual trauma – which we know contribute to the development of severe mental illness, including personality disorders.”
In total, 3,626 women from the Helsinki area of Finland were included in the study.
They typically answered six questionnaires relating to their mental health during pregnancy, with detailed questions on their stress levels.
From the babies born, 40 developed a diagnosed personality disorder.
Ross Brannigan, lead author from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, said: “This study highlights the importance of providing mental health and stress support to both pregnant women and families during the antenatal and postnatal period.
“It is also important to note that the study shows an association between stress during pregnancy and the development of personality disorders.
“More research is necessary to prove a causal relationship.”
One in 20 people in the UK are thought to have a personality disorder.