Children of women with perinatal mental health problems are twice as likely to develop mental health problems themselves.Pariante, CM et al. (2018)
07 May 2021
Professor Carmine Pariante leads a visionary research programme – King’s Babies – that aims to tackle the damaging effects of maternal mental ill health on children before and after they are born.
Every year around 26 million women suffer mental health problems during pregnancy or in the first year after birth, known as the perinatal period. Many are only diagnosed after the birth of their child, if at all. Untreated, these experiences of poor mental health can irrevocably alter the course of not only the mother’s life, but the life of their child and even future generations.
King’s College London research has shown that maternal depression and poor mental health can have a significant impact on the development of a baby in the womb and the early years of a child’s life. For example, after mental ill health during pregnancy:
- babies as young as 6 days old are less responsive to stimuli such as sound and light, and are less able to stop crying without being comforted by a parent or carer
- older babies show an increased response to stress, for example when receiving vaccinations at 12 months old.
How is poor mental health passed on from one generation to the next?
One mechanism may be related to the stress hormone cortisol. Pregnant women suffering from depression release greater quantities of cortisol into the bloodstream, and this can directly impair how a baby learns to regulate their own stress levels. By seeding deep-rooted problems that carry through to childhood, adolescence and beyond, poor maternal mental health is shaping lives before they have even begun.
How can we help?
King’s Babies is the result of a unique partnership between King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) and the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM).
Led by Professor Pariante, one of the world’s foremost experts on perinatal mental health, King’s Babies ran a major research study involving 300 pregnant women and their babies, who are now children aged eight. The data collected from these individuals over the last decade is a unique resource, unmatched worldwide and already informing improvements in clinical care and influencing policy making. The King’s Babies team measured factors such as cortisol levels from saliva samples; babies’ responses to stimuli; interactions between mothers and babies using a scoring system; and environmental circumstances.
“The aim of King’s Babies is to understand the biological mechanisms behind the transmission of poor mental health between mother and baby,” says Professor Pariante. “Why does it happen, how does it happen, and what are our opportunities to prevent it? Our work has included early testing of new therapies that aim to stop maternal mental health issues in their tracks before they can effect a developing baby in the womb.”
Following the original King’s Babies cohort of children (now aged eight) into their adolescence will be invaluable in understanding how their mental health develops long term. The team’s aspiration is to also run a brand-new study involving 300 pregnant women with moderate to severe mental health disorders. Ten years on from the first King’s Babies study, they could now test new technologies that were not available at the start of the project. Areas they hope to explore include:
- Using state-of-the-art imaging to study changes in an unborn baby’s brain while they are still in the womb. This incredible technology could allow us to map connections in the developing baby’s brain, track changes caused by mental health conditions, and find new ways of preventing the long-lasting impacts of poor mental health on mothers and their children.
- Investigating whether nutritional supplements such as omega-3 fish oil can support healthy development and good mental health in babies. Professor Pariante has already shown that these supplements are effective at treating and preventing depression in expectant mothers, so they could offer a vital alternative for women who cannot (or prefer not to) take antidepressants.
SLaM and KCL’s new Pears Maudsley Centre for Children and Young People – set to open in 2023 – will propel the work of King’s Babies forward, drawing a critical mass of world-leading researchers and clinicians and accelerating discoveries that will protect mothers and babies from mental ill health, now and in the future.
- Pariante, CM et al. (2018) Antenatal depression programs cortisol stress reactivity in offspring through increased maternal inflammation and cortisol in pregnancy: The Psychiatry Research and Motherhood – Depression (PRAM-D) Study. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 98, 211-221. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2018.06.017