A Vicious Cycle Can Begin in Pregnancy

Prenatal stress linked to higher risk of bullying victimization in unborn child

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) How do bullies choose their victims? There are probably several reasons. But one of them may have to do with the victims of the bullying before they're even born.

A recent study found that stress during pregnancy may raise the risk that the baby will later be a victim of bullying.

These researchers believe the stress a woman feels during pregnancy may change how the child reacts to stress. Reacting poorly to stress could make children more likely to be targets for bullies.

"Reduce your stress during pregnancy."

The study, led by Dieter Wolke, PhD, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, used data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children.

The study involved 8,829 children whose parents enrolled during pregnancy. The researchers regularly assessed the amount of family adversity the pregnant women experienced as well as their levels of anxiety and depression, both before and after they gave birth.

When the children were preschoolers, the researchers assessed the families' parenting styles, how much conflict between the parents/partners occurred and the children's temperament.

They also used interviews from the child, the parents and teachers to determine how often the child was a victim of bullying between the ages of 7 and 10.

They found that children were more likely to be victimized by bullying if their mothers experienced high levels of family adversity and poorer mental health while pregnant.

This link held true even when the researchers took into account family adversity and the mother's mental health after the child was born, parenting styles, partner conflict and the child's temperament.

When they were not taking these factors into account, the researchers found that partner conflict and ineffective parenting in a family also increased the likelihood that a child would be a victim of bullying.

The researchers suggested that prenatal stress may play a part in how the unborn baby's brain develops in terms of handling stress.

"When we are exposed to stress, large quantities of neurohormones are released into the blood stream, and in a pregnant woman this can change the developing fetus' own stress response system," Dr. Wolke said in a release about the study.

"Changes in the stress response system can affect behavior and how children react emotionally to stress such as being picked on by a bully," he said. "Children who more easily show a stress reaction such as crying, running away, and anxiety are then selected by bullies to hone in to."

However, it is worth noting that the study did not do any scans or measurements of the children's brains. The possibility raised by Dr. Wolke would require further research to determine.

All that the study currently shows is that high levels of stress, depression and anxiety during pregnancy are linked to higher rates of bullying in those children years after they are born.

Regardless, these findings are exciting to learn about, said LuAnn Pierce, a licensed clinical social worker in Colorado. As researchers learn more about possible effects of prenatal exposure, we can learn more about the best ways to care for pregnant women and their unborn babies.

"It took decades for most people to accept the reality that smoking and alcohol/drug use during pregnancy were linked to birth defects and brain damage that resulted in learning problems, attention problems and other psychiatric and psychological issues," Pierce said.

"With current progress in brain imaging and neuroscience, we will soon be able to provide more evidence to support theories such as these," she said regarding the possible effects of prenatal stress on a baby's developing brain. "The result should be better practice and policy around the care of pregnant women and pre-natal care for children."

The study was published November 2 in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the United Kingdom Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the University of Bristol.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 15, 2012
Last Updated:
December 3, 2012