A Mother's Mental Health vs. Child's Physical Health

Contributor: Bhavna Guduguntla

Most people don’t think the mental health of a pregnant mother will affect her child, however a recent study has now shown that a mother’s mental illness may lead her baby to experience adverse health outcomes. The study looked at mothers who experienced depression, stress, or anxiety during pregnancy and how these illnesses affected fetal head growth. Restricted fetal head development, also referred to as fetal growth restriction (FGR), is also a possibility (Lewis, Austin, Galbally).

FGR occurs when a child’s head does not undergo normal development during gestation and is associated with many neurodevelopmental issues later in life. These issues include delays in motor, cognitive, social and behavioral development, and an abnormal birth weight (Lewis, Austin, Galbally).

In early-onset FGR, there is an asymmetrical reduction in head development, overall decrease in fetal size, an increased risk for cerebral palsy, and delays in psychomotor and cognition. On the other hand, late-onset FDR is associated with “a decrease in perceptual performance, motor ability, cognition, attention and memory and in some cases an impact on future school achievement” (Lewis, Austin, Galbally).

Although anxiety, stress, and depression are viewed and studied separately, the study acknowledges that they often occur concurrently or in succession. Currently, 22% of mothers will experience prenatal depression during their first trimester, and 13% of mothers will continue or start to experience it in their second trimester. This is why these studies are more relevant than ever, as so many women and children are affected by these illnesses.

Research has shown that a mother’s prenatal depression is associated with “offspring vulnerability to behavioral and emotional problems during childhood and adolescence,” and often results in cognitive development issues (Lewis, Austin, Galbally). Furthermore, it is already known that a mother who experiences continued depression, anxiety, or stress will have a worse mother-child relationship following gestation, which is why it is imperative that we understand how these illnesses affect the development of a child during pregnancy.

Additionally, it has also been proven that the progress of a child’s development is directly proportional to the success of the mother-child relationship (Lewis, Austin, Galbally). Based on their results, they concluded that in most cases including a mother who experiences one or more of these mental illnesses, the child shows a stunted fetal head growth development.  In terms of anxiety, children born to mothers who experience anxiety during gestation have a 76% increased chance of a low birth weight, which is shown to increase risks of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and diabetes (Lewis, Austin, Galbally). The study also reported that children born to mothers who experienced either of these mental illnesses had a lower birth rate than their healthy counterparts.

The study’s implications prove extremely critical in measuring the importance of a mother’s mental wellbeing during pregnancy, however it did have many restrictions and should be further developed in the future. Additional cases need to be studied, as this study only examined nine. Moreover, there was only one point at which the mental health of the mother was diagnosed; there was no later checkup to examine their depression, stress, or anxiety. Additional studies that continue Lewis, Austin, and Galbally’s findings should prove extremely beneficial in the future.


Lewis, A. J., E. Austin, and M. Galbally. "Prenatal Maternal Mental Health and Fetal Growth Restriction: A Systematic Review." J Dev Orig Health Dis Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (2016)

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