Even toddlers can pick up on their parents' relationship problems, researchers report.
A team of academics from the Universities of Cambridge, Birmingham, New York, and Leiden have analysed the experiences of over 430 first-time expectant mothers and fathers, who were followed up at four, 14 and 24 months after birth. They found that prenatal wellbeing of first-time mothers had a direct impact on the behaviour of their children by the time they were two years old, and specifically, mothers who suffered from stress and anxiety in the prenatal period were more likely to see their child display behavioural problems such as "temper tantrums, restlessness, and spitefulness".
Additionally, the experts also reported that children at this age were more likely to exhibit emotional problems, such as being worried, unhappy, tearful, scaring easily, or being clingy, if their parents had been having early postnatal relationship problems, extending from a general lack of happiness to rows and other kinds of conflict.
"For too long, the experiences of first-time dads has either been side-lined or treated in isolation from that of mums. This needs to change because difficulties in children's early relationships with both mothers and fathers can have long-term effects," lead author Professor Claire Hughes said. "We have already shared our findings with the NCT (National Childbirth Trust) and we encourage the NHS and other organisations to reconsider the support they offer.
"Our findings highlight the need for earlier and more effective support for couples to prepare them better for the transition to parenthood."
The researchers claimed the findings are the first to highlight a need for greater support for couples before, during, and after pregnancy, and to examine the influence of both mothers' and fathers' wellbeing before and after birth on children's adjustment at 14 and 24 months of age.
"If mum has a difficult birth, that can be a potentially traumatic experience for dads... What both studies show is that we need to make antenatal support much more inclusive and give first-time mums and dads the tools they need to communicate with each other and better prepare them for this major transition. With resources stretched, parents are missing out on the support they need," added co-author Dr. Sarah Foley.
Full study results have been published in the journal Development & Psychopathology.