View all news

Mum’s anxiety affects unborn baby’s brain

31 August 2001

Anxiety during pregnancy can double a mother’s risk of having a hyperactive child, according to new research released today (Monday, 3 September) for National Pregnancy Week.

Anxiety during pregnancy can double a mother’s risk of having a hyperactive child, according to new research released today (Monday, 3 September) for National Pregnancy Week.

Professor Vivette Glover of Imperial College, London, speaking on behalf of Tommy’s, the baby charity, is presenting new findings from a study of more than 7,000 mums-to-be alongside an overview of how stress and anxiety during pregnancy can affect the unborn baby’s development and birth.

During National Pregnancy Week (September 3 to 9), Tommy’s will be encouraging mums-to-be to take time out for rest and relaxation, for exercise and to attend antenatal check ups. National Pregnancy Week is supported by Steri-bottle, the first ever ready-to-go pre-sterillised feeding bottle.

Professor Glover and Dr Tom O’Connor studied women living in Avon and expecting their babies between April 1991 and December 1992 (the ALSPAC Study, also known as Children of the 90s).

Each woman completed questionnaires designed to measure their level of anxiety at 18 and 32 weeks of pregnancy. Women were identified as anxious if they scored in the top 15 per cent of respondents. Children were assessed for behavioural and emotional problems just before their fourth birthday.

Researchers looked particularly at women who were anxious during their pregnancy, but whose levels of anxiety fell after delivery. This was to see how the baby’s behaviour was affected by antenatal anxiety rather than their mother’s mood during their early years.

Results showed that women who were anxious in the last trimester of pregnancy had children with more behavioural problems. Those who had boys were twice as likely to have a child who showed problems with hyperactivity and inattention problems at age four. The association between anxiety and hyperactivity in girls was less significant.

Professor Glover, who is Professor of Perinatal Psychobiology says: ‘It is important to emphasise that this research shows that antenatal anxiety leads to the risk of hyperactivity increasing from one in 20 to one in 10. Not every anxious mum will have a hyperactive child.’

‘It is also important to note that mood swings are common in pregnancy and that most mums-to-be will have times when they are worried. This study showed that only those who scored highest on our anxiety questionnaire had the increased risk.’

She adds: ‘While further research needs to be done on the best way to treat this anxiety, it is sensible that every pregnant woman makes time to rest and relax during pregnancy, and that she shares any concerns she has with someone she trusts, for example, her midwife, her partner or a close friend.’

Professor Glover’s team are working on two theories of how a mother’s anxiety can affect the brain development of her unborn child.

The first is that the mother’s anxiety reduces the blood flow to the womb and therefore to the baby, cutting the amount of oxygen and nutrients it receives. This is based on evidence from special scans of the main uterine artery which show reduced blood flow in anxious mothers.

The second is that the stress hormone, cortisol, can cross the placenta and affect brain development. Studies have shown that if the level of cortisol is higher in the mother, it will also be higher in blood samples taken from the unborn baby.

Professor Glover is a member of Tommy’s Pregnancy Accreditation Programme panel of experts, which assesses companies on their pregnancy-friendliness. This scheme was set up by Tommy’s in November 1999 in order to raise awareness of the need for employers to take positive steps to promote the health and well-being of pregnant employees. Its aim is to improve conditions in the workplace for mums-to-be and to ensure that they have access to information about healthy pregnancy and about their rights.

Chief Executive of Tommy’s, Jane Brewin, said: ‘Research into stress in pregnancy is still in its early stages but every mother-to-be should be aware that what she does during pregnancy can have an effect on her baby.’

‘Sadly, we cannot yet promise mothers that a healthy lifestyle and positive attitude will guarantee them a healthy pregnancy. But we are determined to discover how to protect the well-being of babies before birth to ensure that they are born healthy and at the right time.’

Tommy’s aims to save babies’ lives by funding research into and information on miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth. It has funded more than 58 research projects across the UK and established Centres for Maternal and Fetal Health Research in London and Manchester. In 1996, it set up National Pregnancy Week in order to promote healthy pregnancy among parents to be and health professionals. Activities planned for National Pregnancy Week 2001 will include new interactive pages on Tommy’s website and a new version of its Healthy Pregnancy booklet with expanded sections on exercise and antenatal care.

For more information contact Tommy’s press office on 020 7593 1135 or, for Steri-bottle, Mars Webb at Hill & Knowlton on 020 7413 3241, for ALSPAC - Nick Kerswell email:

Notes to Editors

A summary of Professor Glover’s overview of research into stress in pregnancy is contained in this press pack. Her recent research was supported by PPP Healthcare Medical Trust. The ALSPAC study is supported by a wide variety of funders including the Wellcome trust and the Medical Research Council.


This press release in PDF format (PDF, 56kB)

Edit this page