Review of Infant Mental Health Literature

By Lindsey Wood at Optimize Development


    In the current society, which suffers from high rates of mental illness,  it is necessary to focus on the development of children in order to build healthier future generations. Research has recently revealed that the prenatal environment can affect the outcome of children, so it  is helpful to understand how the environment that the mother is in and the experiences she has during pregnancy impact the child’s stress levels, coping skills, and the likeliness for mental illness.

Glover, V., Golding, J., Heron, J., & O’Connor, T. (2003). Maternal antenatal anxiety and

behavioral/emotional problems in children:a test of a programming hypothesis. The

journal of child psychology and psychiatry, 44.7.

This article discusses research around mothers’ stress during prenatal development having adverse effects on the offspring. The research was based on  previous research on animals that revealed prenatal stress resulted in ngitudipersistent abnormal behavior in offspring. The study was based on the Avon Lonal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), which was a community-based study that utilized parent reports to assess maternal depression and anxiety during pregnancy and then later parent reports of child behavioral and emotional problems at age 47 and 81 months. The research revealed children whose mothers experienced high levels of anxiety in late pregnancy exhibited higher rates of behavioural and emotional problems at 81 months of age.

Ross, Louise, & Williams, Justin. (2007). Consequences of prenatal toxin exposure for mental

health in children and adolescents. European child & adolescent psychiatry, 16.4.

This article, through reviewing literature that conducted longitudinal cohort studies, discusses how the developing fetus may be exposed to a range of environmental toxins that have long-term consequences on the child’s neurodevelopment. The articles explores how exposure to prenatal toxins affects mental health in children and adolescents. Through reviewing current literature, the article reveals exposure to toxins during prenatal development may be a cause of child psychiatric morbidity.

Schlotz, Wolff. (2009). Fetal origins of mental health: evidence and mechanisms. Brain,

Behavior, and Immunity, 23.7.

This article discusses the fetal origins of mental health issues. Research has recently been revealed linking fetal growth with later behavioural and mental health outcomes. Markers in fetal growth have been inversely linked to cognitive functioning and behavioural problems in childhood, in particular to inattention and hyperactivity. Fetal growth and prenatal adversity has been primarily linked to personality disorders and schizophrenia, while the evidence linked to mood disorders is weak. Research also reveals vulnerability for psychopathology may also be influenced by prenatal adversity. Evidence has also shown associations of fetal growth with temperament in childhood as well as stress reactivity and distress. The associations of fetal growth with mental health later in life are potentially caused by specific prenatal factors such as maternal smoking, alcohol, toxins/drugs, nutrition, psychosocial stress and infection during pregnancy.

Weinstock, Marta. (2005). The potential influence of maternal stress hormones on development

and mental health of offspring. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 19.4.

The article reveals the impact of maternal stress hormones on the development and mental health of the offspring. The research reveals chronic maternal distress compromises the normal regulation of hormonal activity during pregnancy, which increases corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH). CRH could cause preterm labor, reduce birth weight and slow growth rate in prenatally stressed infants. CRH has also been associated with impaired fetal habituation to stimuli and temperamental difficulties in infants. Increased CRH and cortisol reaching the developing infant’s brain during periods of chronic maternal stress could alter personality and predispose the child to attention deficits and depressive illness through changes in neurotransmitter activity.

    The research has revealed that child mental health outcomes are impacted by the environment that the mother is in and the experiences she has during pregnancy impact the child’s stress levels, coping skills, and the likeliness for mental illness. The studies have also revealed that exposure to toxins such as toxic stress or drugs during prenatal development can hinder the mental health of the child.

    This information can be utilized by sharing with expecting mothers and women who plan to conceive the importance of a healthy pregnancy and the impact different stressors or toxins can have on their child postnatal. It seems to be a common misconception that the child is not affected by the mother and her environment, but research has revealed otherwise. This information will allow mothers to give their child their best chance at mental health by having information to have healthy prenatal development.