We now realise that our long term health depends on an interaction between our genes and our environment, and also that the environment of the womb is highly important in having long-term effects on a child’s wellbeing later. This phenomenon is known as fetal programming.
Our research has shown that if the mother is stressed or anxious while pregnant this can affect the development of the fetal brain. Most children of even quite anxious women are not affected, but if she is in the top 15% most anxious of the population, there is twice the risk of her child having symptoms of ADHD, conduct disorder, or anxiety and depression. There is also a risk of the child having various problems with learning and thinking.
Our research investigates how the emotional state of the mother may affect the development of her fetus. We have recently found that if the mother is anxious, her placenta may be a less efficient barrier to the stress hormone cortisol. Higher levels of this are known to change the pattern of development of the fetal brain. The emotional ill health of pregnant women is still under-recognised and under-treated. This research shows that it is very important to detect and treat any problems both for the sake of the woman herself, but also for that of her future child, and indeed the whole society. There is the potential to prevent the development of a range of brain and behavioural problems arising in the next generation.