Experts believe, for the first time, that they’ve shown conflicts between couples can help to explain emotional problems in very young children.
Their research also indicates expectant parents’ emotional struggles have an impact on behavioural problems in their children.
The team from the Universities of Cambridge, Birmingham, New York and Leiden say their findings highlight a “pressing need” for greater support for couples before, during and after pregnancy to improve outcomes for children.
Lead author, Professor Claire Hughes from Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research, said: “For too long, the experiences of first-time dads has either been sidelined or treated in isolation from that of mums. This needs to change because difficulties in children’s early relationships with both mothers and fathers can have long-term effects.”
The study is believed to be the first to look at the influence of both mothers’ and fathers’ wellbeing before and after birth on children at 14 and 24 months of age.
According to the research, the wellbeing of first-time mothers before birth had a direct impact on the behaviour of their children by the time they were two years old. Mothers who suffered from prenatal stress and anxiety were more likely to see their child display behavioural problems such as temper tantrums, restlessness and spitefulness.
The researchers also found two-year-olds were more likely to exhibit emotional problems – including being worried, unhappy and tearful, scaring easily, or being clingy in new situations – if their parents had been having early postnatal relationship problems.
These ranged from a general lack of happiness in the relationship to arguments and other kinds of conflict.
The study published in Development & Psychopathology drew on the experiences of 438 first-time expectant mothers and fathers who were followed up at four, 14 and 24 months after birth. These parents were from the East of England, New York State and the Netherlands.
Using standardised questionnaires and in-person interviews, the parents reported on their symptoms of anxiety and depression in the third trimester of pregnancy and when their child was at the three stages.
They also completed standardised questionnaire measures of couple relationship quality and children’s emotions and behaviour.
The study acknowledges that genetic factors are likely to play a role but they accounted for parents’ mental health difficulties prior to their first pregnancy and after their child’s birth.
For relationship support, national charity Relate has a range of resources, including a free live chat, local support groups, and a phone line.