• Parental depression or anxiety;
  • child attention problems;
  • cohort studies;
  • intrauterine effect

Background:  Maternal depression and anxiety during pregnancy have been associated with offspring-attention deficit problems.

Aim:  We explored possible intrauterine effects by comparing maternal and paternal symptoms during pregnancy, by investigating cross-cohort consistency, and by investigating whether parental symptoms in early childhood may explain any observed intrauterine effect.

Methods:  This study was conducted in two cohorts (Generation R, n = 2,280 and ALSPAC, n = 3,442). Pregnant women and their partners completed questionnaires to assess symptoms of depression and anxiety. Child attention problems were measured in Generation R at age 3 with the Child Behavior Checklist, and in ALSPAC at age 4 with the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire.

Results:  In both cohorts, antenatal maternal symptoms of depression (Generation R: OR 1.23, 95% CI 1.05–1.43; ALSPAC: OR 1.33, 95% CI 1.19–1.48) and anxiety (Generation R: OR 1.24, 95% CI 1.06–1.46; ALSPAC: OR 1.32, 95% CI 1.19–1.47) were associated with a higher risk of child attention problems. In ALSPAC, paternal depression was also associated with a higher risk of child attention problems (OR 1.11, 95% CI 1.00–1.24). After adjusting for maternal symptoms after giving birth, antenatal maternal depression and anxiety were no longer associated with child attention problems in Generation R. Moreover, there was little statistical evidence that antenatal maternal and paternal depression and anxiety had a substantially different effect on attention problems of the child.

Conclusions:  The apparent intrauterine effect of maternal depression and anxiety on offspring-behavioural problems may be partly explained by residual confounding. There was little evidence of a difference between the strength of associations of maternal and paternal symptoms during pregnancy with offspring-attention problems. That maternal symptoms after childbirth were also associated with offspring-behavioural problems may indicate a contribution of genetic influences to the association.