14 September 2019

Anxious during pregnancy? Your child is more likely to show this symptom of ADHD

A large study has shed light on the link between anxiety during pregnancy and hyperactivity in a child’s adolescent years.

Scientists have known for a while that what happens during the foetal and early stages of a child’s life can have an impact on their later health.

Now, according to a news report, a long-term study of more than 3 000 children in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) has shown that anxiety experienced during pregnancy has a link with hyperactivity later in life. The link between this factor and other ADHD symptoms, is however, still unclear.

Inattention not linked

ALSPAC, a project based in Bristol UK, monitored physical anxiety symptoms in 8 727 mothers between early pregnancy and her child reaching the age of five. The researchers classified these mothers as having low, medium or high anxiety levels and checked the performance of their children in attention tests once the children reached the age of eight. There was no difference in their attention span, no matter how high the anxiety level of the mother was.

However, when a larger group of children were tested at the age of 16, it was clear that there was a difference in hyperactivity symptoms depending on the mother’s anxiety level.  

Dr Blanca Bolea, study leader, said the following: "This is the first time that a study has shown that anxiety is linked to a child's hyperactivity in later life but that inattention is not linked. One interpretation is that some symptoms of ADHD are associated with the mother's anxiety, but not all of them. More broadly, it shows that the stresses a mother experiences can show up in her child nearly a generation later; it is worth noting that all the mothers reported an increase in anxiety during pregnancy. Around 28% of the women we tested showed medium or high anxiety. We controlled for hyperactivity in 3 199 children in total, and found that 224 children showed signs of hyperactivity, with the rate of hyperactivity more than double if the mother had suffered from medium or high anxiety."

A controversial illness

It's important to note that this study is only an association and we can’t say with certainty that it’s only anxiety during pregnancy that will cause hyperactivity in later life. There are a lot of other genetic, biological or environmental factors that need to be taken into account.

According to the press release explaining the study,  it could be a that the children are responding to perceived anxiety in the mother, or it could be that there is some biological effect which causes this, for example stress hormones in the placenta having an effect on a developing brain. ADHD is a controversial illness, and there doesn't seem to be any single cause, though we know it can be hereditary. This work shows that maternal anxiety is one factor which is linked to ADHD, but we need some more research to confirm this and other causes."

Commenting, Professor Andreas Reif (University Hospital, Frankfurt) said:

"This is a very interesting study, especially given the longitudinal and transgenerational character and its large sample size. As with all studies of this design, one however must be cautious not to mix association with causation. As we know that ADHD and anxious traits are correlated on the genetic level, the finding could well be reflective of shared genetic influences. However, it is also important to stress that this study is not on anxiety disorders or ADHD, but rather on traits related to these disorders. For sure these data, however, further add to the emerging picture that ADHD / hyperactivity, anxiety and bipolar disorder are linked."

Image credit: iStock


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ADHD Expert

Dr Renata Schoeman has been in full-time private practice as a general psychiatrist (child, adolescent and adult psychiatry) since 2008, currently based in Oude Westhof (Bellville). Renata also holds appointments as senior lecturer in Leadership (USB) and as a virtual faculty member of USB Executive Development’s Neuroleadership programme. She serves on the advisory boards of various pharmaceutical companies, as a director of the Psychiatric Management Group (PsychMG) and is the co-convenor of the South African Society of Psychiatrist (SASOP) special interest group for adult ADHD, and co-founder of the Goldilocks and The Bear Foundation ( She is passionate about corporate mental health awareness and uses her neuroscience background to assist leaders in equipping them to become balanced, healthy and dynamic leaders that take their own and their team’s emotional, intellectual, social health and physical needs into account. Renata is academically active and enjoys research and collaborative work, has published in many peer-reviewed journals, and has presented at local and international congresses. She is regularly invited to present at conferences and to engage with the media. During her post-graduate studies, she trained at Harvard, Boston in neurocognition and neuroimaging. Her awards include, amongst others, the Young Minds in Psychiatry award from the American Psychiatric Association, the Discovery Foundation Fellowship award, a Thuthuka award from the NRF, and a MRC Fellowship. She also received the Top MBA student award and the Director’s award from USB for 2015. She was a finalist for the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa’s Businesswoman of the Year Award for 2016, and received the Excellence in Media Work award from SASOP during 2016.

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