Children of Prenatally Depressed Mothers: Externalizing and Internalizing Symptoms are Accompanied by Reductions in Specific Social-Emotional Competencies
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Studies have shown that child development is negatively affected by prenatal depression. A dysregulated hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in the pregnant woman, passed to the fetus, is one discussed key mechanism. Studies, investigating primary-school age children, have found effects on antisocial behavior. Effects on internalizing symptoms were not found, but the analysis did not distinguish between anxiety and depression symptoms. Additionally, until now, no objective test data operationalizing social-emotional competencies have been included. The present study examined: 1.Whether the effects on child externalizing symptoms could be replicated; 2. If there are specific effects on child internalizing symptoms, separated for anxiety and depression; and 3. Are child clinical symptoms reflected in reductions in social-emotional competencies. A sample of 61 prenatally depressed and 143 prenatally not-depressed women and their 6–9 year old children were compared, controlling for key confounders in both the perinatal period and in middle childhood. Children of prenatally depressed mothers had more antisocial behavior and depression symptoms reported by their mothers. The prediction of antisocial behavior scores tended to be more significant for boys than for girls. Child anxiety symptoms were primarily explained by current maternal depressive symptoms. Children of prenatally depressed mothers also showed a reduction in social-emotional competencies, specifically regarding the ability to interpret complex social situations. This study showed that, even in a non-clinical sample, there are distinct effects of prenatal depression on child externalizing and internalizing symptoms which are accompanied by reductions in specific social-emotional competencies. These results emphasize that treatment for depressed pregnant women and/or early support for affected families is worthwhile. Additional work is required to identify the underlying biological mechanisms.
KeywordsPrenatal exposure Prenatal depression Child development Conduct disorder Social emotional competence
A.E.: Designed and conducted the FRANCES study, supervised the data acquisition, analyzed the data, interpreted the findings and wrote the paper. L.W.: Contributed to the FRANCES data acquisition, analyzed the data, interpreted the findings and wrote the first draft of the paper. J. Gru: Contributed to the FRANCES design and data acquisition. J. Gri: Contributed to the FRANCES design and data acquisition. J.v.D.: Interpreted the findings, collaborated in the writing and editing of the final manuscript. E.R.: Contributed to the FRANCES design and recruitment. T.W.G.: Initiated, designed and conducted the FRAMES study. P.A.F.: Initiated, designed and conducted the FRAMES study. M.W.B.: Initiated, designed and conducted the FRAMES study. J.K.: Initiated, designed and conducted the FRAMES study. O.K.: Initiated and designed the FRANCES study. H.H.: Initiated, designed and conducted the FRANCES study, interpreted the findings, collaborated in the writing of the manuscript. G.H.M.: Initiated and designed the FRANCES study. All authors corrected the manuscript, provided substantial intellectual input, and approved the final version of the manuscript.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of Interest
Anna Eichler was supported by the ELAN Fund of the Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg. The remaining authors declare that they have no competing interests.
All procedures performed were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments.
Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.
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