Death of a loved one can be very painful for everyone in general. C.S. Lewis in fact said, 'The death of a beloved is an amputation,' in his book
. The subsequent stress can be overwhelming and return to normalcy is often a struggle to everyone grieving the loss. Especially so, in the case of a woman carrying her child. Added to the physical and emotional challenges of
‘Prenatal exposure to the death of a person dear to the pregnant woman could affect the mental health of the child and increase need for ADHD medications during childhood and anti-anxiety and anti-depressants in adulthood.’
Can a Pregnant Woman's Grief Affect Her Child's Mental Health?
Stanford researchers Petra Persson and Maya Rossin-Slater explored the impact of a pregnant woman's grief over the loss of a loved one on the baby in her womb. Their study concludes that the stress caused by grieving may impact the mental health of the child in later years.
The report suggests prenatal exposure to the death of a person dear to the mother could increase the need for ADHD medications during childhood and anti-anxiety and anti-depressants in adulthood.
Not wanting to add to the stress of pregnancy and motherhood, the researchers are quick to reassure pregnant women and young mothers that it may not always be the case, though it is possible.
Singletons Only - Details of the Study
The study was based in Sweden specifically on singletons or an 'only' child, born between 1973 and 2011 whose mother suffered from the loss of a close relative during her pregnancy. The researchers used population registers and constructed family trees spanning four generations, from the children in the study to their maternal great-grandparents.
The samples taken for research included all children whose mother lost one close relative such as a sibling, parent, a grandparent from the mother's side, the child's father or an older child of the mother. The loss taken into account had to be in the nine months after the child's date of conception or the year after the child's birth. However, the researchers clarify the study did not delve into the quality of those relationships.
Researchers followed kids (whose mother lost a close relative during pregnancy) through adulthood and compared their health outcomes to children whose mother's relatives died in the year after their birth. Data was gathered from their medical records and Sweden's prescription drug registry, that has a comprehensive list of all prescription drug purchases.
"Of course, you cannot prevent family members from dying, and we certainly do not want our findings to constitute yet another source of stress for expecting mothers, who already face rather intense pressure to eat the right foods, avoid activities deemed harmful, and experience an avalanche of health advice," Petra Persson said. "But our findings potentially point to the importance of generally reducing stress during pregnancy, for example through prenatal paid maternity leave and programs that provide resources and social support to poor, pregnant women."
Dealing with Rising Mental Health Costs
The researchers also did a rough calculation to understand how a mother's exposure to financial stress during pregnancy could affect the mental health of the next generation. To do this, they relied on past research that estimated cortisol responses to grief and to financial shocks like unemployment and poverty.
Findings of the study can help policy makers and the medical community deal with the rising costs of mental health problems by making efforts to begin setting things right, where the problems begin ó exploring ways to help make the time of pregnancy less stressful for women.
- Petra Persson et al. Family Ruptures, Stress, and the Mental Health of the Next Generation, American Economic Review(2018) DOI: 10.1257/aer.20141406