Maternal happiness in pregnancy boosts child brain development, study finds

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A new study in the journal Nature is mental health By measuring these parameters at 7.5 years of age, it investigates how a mother’s mental state during pregnancy affects the structure and function of the developing fetus’s brain.

Study: Mother's positive mental health during pregnancy affects children's hippocampus and functional brain networks.  Image credit: Dean Drobot/ Study: Positive maternal mental health during pregnancy affects the hippocampus and brain functional networks of infants. Image credit: Dean Drobot/

How does maternal mental state affect fetal development?

During pregnancy, which is a time of significant physical, emotional, and social change, anxiety, depression, and other stress-related mental health disorders are frequently reported. These mental health problems are associated with lasting and adverse effects on fetal brain development.

For example, previous studies have shown that these psychiatric disorders can cause changes in fetal hippocampal growth rate and lower gray matter density in the prefrontal and medial temporal lobes during infancy. These children may also exhibit altered structure and function of emotion-regulatory cortico-limb networks, which are important for stress management.

At certain stages, these changes appear to be more significant in girls than in boys. Notably, the mother need not be clinically anxious or depressed to manifest these changes.

As a key component of mental health, positive maternal emotions such as happiness can influence multiple outcomes, including mother-child bonding, parenting practices, and child development. Furthermore, maternal happiness during pregnancy also affects the long-term health of both mother and child; However, it remains unclear how positive maternal emotions influence prenatal development.

About the study

The present study used data from the Growing Up in Singapore Towards Health Outcomes (GUSTO) cohort. Both structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) were performed on the infants to explore the relationship of maternal happiness during pregnancy with brain development.

Researchers have developed their own instrument to measure positive maternal mental health during pregnancy. It is based on a mental health questionnaire given to pregnant women at 26-28 weeks.

What does the study show?

At the age of 7.5 years, children experience a critical stage of development during which the brain moves to different types of activities and cognitive processes develop in new ways. Consequently, this period was chosen as the focus of the study.

Brain areas involved in emotion perception and regulation include the hippocampus and amygdala, as well as various functional networks such as the visual network, the default mode network (DMN), and the functional network. These areas of the brain are directly related to how the mother cares for the child.

A composite measure from multiple mental health scales was used to assess positive maternal emotions during pregnancy. Other possible contributing factors such as socioeconomic status, stress levels, family and friend relationships, and death of close relatives in the two years before and after conception were also recorded to determine a socio-environmental risk factor. Maternal parenting stress was also assessed when the child was six years old.

Importantly, girls born to mothers who reported feeling happy during pregnancy had larger hippocampal volumes, whereas both boys and girls born to happy mothers showed altered functional connectivity of multiple networks.

When categorized by task-negative and task-positive networks, decreased connectivity between task-negative networks was observed in girls born to mothers with increased positive emotions during pregnancy. Conversely, increased connectivity within task-positive networks was associated with greater maternal happiness during pregnancy.

Because these findings were absent when investigating maternal depression or anxiety during pregnancy, the observed changes in functional connectivity may occur specifically with maternal positive emotions during pregnancy. This may indicate that maternal happiness is transmitted to the developing infant’s brain through neural changes.

What are the effects?

The results of the study suggest that feeling happy during pregnancy not only reduces the mother’s risk of mental illness but also acts as a protective factor for fetal brain development.

Previous research has shown that anxious and stressed mothers are more likely to have babies with hippocampal changes, which can affect the developing brain and lead to impaired stress responses in the future. By encouraging mothers to have positive emotions during pregnancy, hippocampal development in offspring can be promoted, with improved structure and functional networks when children typically start school.

Importantly, enhanced hippocampal development is associated with greater childhood resilience, thus serving as an early marker of emotional vulnerability and greater potential for behavioral and emotional problems when coping with stressful situations. However, the period of fetal development in which maternal positive emotions occur may alter the effect.

Future studies are needed to establish and extend these findings, particularly to understand the neural basis of prenatal-maternal interactions during psychoneurological development. These studies may help develop preventive strategies to help mothers feel happier during pregnancy and ultimately improve the mental health of their children.

Journal Reference:

  • Qiu, A., Shen, C., Lopez-Vicente, M., etc. (2024). Positive maternal mental health during pregnancy affects the hippocampus and brain functional networks of infants. Nature is mental health. doi:10.1038/s44220-024-00202-8.

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