It has been found that prenatal stress causes subsequent emotional and behavioral problems in animals, but that maternal grooming can reduce such problems. To explore analogous phenomena in humans, a British team analyzed relations between mothers’ anxiety during pregnancy, their subsequent stroking of their babies, and the children’s problems at age 3.5 years (Pickles et al., 2017). The mothers (N = 813) filled out the Pregnancy-Specific Anxiety Scale and the State Anxiety Scale (to measure general anxiety) at gestational week 20.

The mothers filled out the State Anxiety Scale again when their children were 9 weeks, 14 months, and 3.5 years old. When their children were 3.5 years old, the mothers also completed the Edinburg Postnatal Depression Scale and the CBCL/1½-5. After partialing out the effects of general anxiety and several maternal and child variables, the researchers found that high pregnancy-specific anxiety predicted high age 3.5 CBCL Internalizing, Externalizing, and Aggressive Behavior scores for children whose mothers reported low levels of stroking but that frequent stroking significantly reduced predictive associations between pregnancy-specific anxiety and children’s age 3.5 Internalizing, Externalizing, and Aggressive Behavior scores. There were no significant effects of stroking on associations with general anxiety.

The authors concluded “that frequency of infant stroking, assessed via maternal report when infants were on average 9 weeks old, modified associations between pregnancy-specific anxiety at 20 weeks gestation and maternal ratings of internalizing, externalizing, and aggressive behaviors in children aged 3.5 years” (p. 332).

Reference: Pickles, A., Sharp, H., Hellier, J., & Hill, J. (2017). Prenatal anxiety, maternal stroking in infancy, and symptoms of emotional and behavioral disorders at 3.5 years. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 26, 325-334.