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Psychological distress is common among women of childbearing age, and limited longitudinal research suggests prolonged exposure to maternal distress is linked to child mental health problems. Estimating effects of maternal distress over time is difficult due to potential influences of child mental health problems on maternal distress and time-varying confounding by family circumstances.
We analysed the UK Millennium Cohort Study, a nationally representative sample with data collected throughout childhood. Adopting a marginal structural modelling framework, we investigated effects of exposure to medium/high levels of maternal psychological distress (Kessler-6 score 8+) on child mental health problems (Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire borderline/abnormal behaviour cut-off) using maternal and child mental health data at 3, 5, 7 and 11 years, accounting for the influence of child mental health on subsequent maternal distress, and baseline and time-varying confounding.
Prior and concurrent exposures to maternal distress were associated with higher levels of child mental health problems at ages 3, 5, 7 and 11 years. For example, elevated risks of child mental health problems at 11 years were associated with exposure to maternal distress from 3 years [risk ratio (RR) 1.27 (95% confidence interval (CI) 1.08–1.49)] to 11 years [RR 2.15 (95% CI 1.89–2.45)]. Prolonged exposure to maternal distress at ages 3, 5, 7 and 11 resulted in an almost fivefold increased risk of child mental health problems.
Prior, concurrent and, particularly, prolonged exposure to maternal distress raises risks for child mental health problems. Greater support for mothers experiencing distress is likely to benefit the mental health of their children.
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