Pregnant women who experience stress throughout their pregnancy may have behavioral issues in their unborn kid, although this is less common if they have a sibling.
Researchers from Leipzig, including those from Leipzig University (UL), the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI EVA), and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), tested 373 German mother-child pairs from pregnancy until the children were 10 years old using longitudinal data from the LINA (Lifestyle and environmental factors and their Influence on the Newborn Allergy risk) cohort.
In order to gauge their stress levels and the behavioral issues of their children, mothers were asked to complete three validated questionnaires. First, the researchers examined whether social and environmental variables were associated with elevated levels of maternal stress during pregnancy as well as the long-term effects of maternal stress on the development of behavioral issues in children.
Second, the researchers examined whether having siblings prevented the development of behavioral issues in kids either directly by lowering stress levels and improving kids’ psychological wellbeing or indirectly by minimizing the detrimental effects of maternal stress.
Prenatal stress can cause behavioral problems in the child
The study’s findings showed a direct correlation between socio-environmental stressors, such as a lack of social spaces in the neighborhood, and elevated levels of maternal stress during pregnancy. Additionally, moms who had experienced significant levels of stress during pregnancy—such as worry, sadness, or tension—were also more likely to report that their kids had behavioral issues when they were 7, 8, or 10 years old.
“These results confirm previous findings about the negative impact that even mild forms of prenatal stress might have on child behavior, even after several years, and highlight the importance of early intervention policies that increase maternal wellbeing and reduce the risks of maternal stress already during pregnancy,” explains Federica Amici (UL, MPI-EVA), one of the researchers involved in the project.
On a more positive note, the study also found a lower occurrence of behavioral problems in children with older siblings. “Children who have older brothers or sisters in their households are less likely to develop problems, which suggests that siblings are crucial to promote a healthy child development,” explains Gunda Herberth (UFZ), coordinator of the LINA study.
Higher social competence thanks to older siblings?
This study further suggests that the presence of older siblings directly reduced the likelihood of developing behavioral problems, but did not modulate the negative effects of maternal stress on child behavior. How could older siblings reduce the occurrence of behavioral problems in children? By interacting with their older siblings, children may develop better emotional, perspective taking, and problem-solving skills, which are linked to higher social competence and emotional understanding. Moreover, the presence of older siblings may provide learning opportunities for parents, who might thus develop different expectations and better parental skills.
“We were especially impressed by the important role that siblings appear to play for a healthy child development,” concludes Anja Widdig (UL, MPI-EVA, iDiv). “We hope that our findings will draw attention to the importance of public health policies that directly target children and their siblings, and promote a healthy environment for their well-being and the development of high-quality sibling relationships”.
Reference: “Maternal stress, child behavior and the promotive role of older siblings” by Federica Amici, Stefan Röder, Wieland Kiess, Michael Borte, Ana C. Zenclussen, Anja Widdig and Gunda Herberth, 29 April 2022, BMC Public Health.
The study was funded by the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ, Leipzig.