Stress in pregnancy raises risk of child having a personality disorder

Women who become stressed during pregnancy ‘are 10 TIMES more likely to have children with a personality disorder’

  • The research was published in the publication the British Journal of Psychiatry 
  • It is the first to show a link between prenatal stress and personality disorders 
  • Experts think about one in 20 people in the UK have a personality disorder 

Women who become stressed during pregnancy are at greater risk of having children with personality disorder, research suggests.

Children whose mothers experience severe stress while pregnant are at 10 times the risk of developing the behavioural problem by the age of 30 than others.

And those who feel moderate stress are at four times the risk.

The research, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, is the first to provide evidence of an association between prenatal stress and personality disorders.

Children whose mothers experience severe stress while pregnant are at 10 times the risk of developing the behavioural problem by the age of 30 than others

Experts believe this is because stress in pregnancy affects the way the infant brain develops.

Personality disorders are a broad range of behavioural problems which can result in disturbed thinking, impusive behaviour and aggression.

Experts think about one in 20 people in the UK have a personality disorder.

Many people suffering from these issues also suffer from other mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

Study leader Ross Brannigan, from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, said: ‘This study highlights the importance of providing mental health and stress support to both pregnant women and families during the antenatal and postnatal period.’

The research team tracked 3,626 people born in 1975 and 1976 in Helsinki, Finland.

They were re-assessed in 2005, when they were 29 or 30 years old.

In that time 40 of the 3,626 sample had been diagnosed with personality disorder.

After taking into account parental psychiatric history and maternal smoking – which are already known to influence the risk of personality disorder – the authors found calculated that those exposed to severe maternal stress were 9.53 times more likely to develop the problem as those whose mothers experienced no stress during pregnancy.

Those whose mother experienced moderate stress were 3.59 times more likely.

Previous studies have found brain differences between those with and without personality disorders, and that prenatal stress impacts childhood brain development.

It is also likely that women who are stressed during pregnancy will also be stressed after the child is born – which could impact the mother-child relationship in the crucial early months of bonding.

Dr Trudi Seneviratne, chairman of the perinatal faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: ‘Pregnancy can be a stressful time and this study shows the importance of ensuring mums-to-be have access to the mental health support they need.

‘NHS England has dramatically improved access to perinatal mental health services in recent times – and these findings show how important it is for them to continue investing in this area.

‘The study does not account for important factors that affect stress and child development – such as financial situation, parenting style and sexual trauma – which we know contribute to the development of severe mental illness, including personality disorders.’


The more active and fit you are during pregnancy, the easier it will be for you to adapt to your changing shape and weight gain. It will also help you to cope with labour and get back into shape after the birth.

Keep up your normal daily physical activity or exercise (sport, running, yoga, dancing, or even walking to the shops and back) for as long as you feel comfortable.

Exercise is not dangerous for your baby – there is some evidence that active women are less likely to experience problems in later pregnancy and labour.

Exercise tips when you’re pregnant:

  • always warm up before exercising and cool down afterwards
  • try to keep active on a daily basis: half an hour of walking each day can be enough, but if you can’t manage that, any amount is better than nothing 
  • avoid any strenuous exercise in hot weather 
  • drink plenty of water and other fluids 
  • if you go to exercise classes, make sure your teacher is properly qualified, and knows that you’re pregnant
  • you might like to try swimming because the water will support your increased weight
  • exercises that have a risk of falling, such as horse riding, downhill skiing, ice hockey, gymnastics and cycling, should only be done with caution. Falls may risk damage to the baby

Exercises to avoid in pregnancy:

  • don’t lie flat on your back for prolonged periods, particularly after 16 weeks, because the weight of your bump presses on the main blood vessel bringing blood back to your heart and this can make you feel faint
  • don’t take part in contact sports where there’s a risk of being hit, such as kickboxing, judo or squash 
  • don’t go scuba diving, because the baby has no protection against decompression sickness and gas embolism
  • don’t exercise at heights over 2,500m above sea level until you have acclimatised: this is because you and your baby are at risk of altitude sickness 

For more information, visit the NHS website.   

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