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Risk of premature birth 50 per cent higher in mothers with poor mental health: NIHR-funded report

Mid-section portrait of unrecognisable woman during last months of pregnancy holding her bump, gently standing against wall in blue room

Published: 16 August 2023

Women experiencing mental health issues are at a 50% greater risk of giving birth preterm. That’s according to newly-published research funded by NIHR. 

The study, the largest of its kind, analysed data from over 2 million pregnant women. It found 1 in 10 women who had used mental health services before their pregnancy had a preterm birth. This was compared to 1 in 15 in those who had not. It also showed women who had at least one contact with mental health services in the 7 years prior to their pregnancy were at increased risk.

Previous research has identified a link between poor mental health in pregnant mothers and worse outcomes for babies. However, the new research, which linked hospital and birth registration data with specialist mental health service records, quantifies the effects in greater detail.

Higher risk 

The study also highlighted women who had used mental health services faced a higher risk of giving birth to a baby that was small for its gestational age. The risk increased from 65 per 1,000 births in women who had not used mental health services to 75 per 1,000 births in women who had. Women with psychiatric hospital admissions were at the highest risk of birth-related complications. Those with more recent pre-pregnancy mental healthcare contacts were also at high risk.

Senior co-author Professor Louise M Howard OBE, Professor of Women's Mental Health at King's College London, said: "This study highlights the significant extent to which women with pre-existing mental health conditions, particularly those who had a hospital admission and/or recent contact with mental health services, are at risk of adverse obstetric and neonatal outcomes. It is therefore vital that midwives ask in detail about pre-pregnancy mental healthcare contact, and maternity and mental health services then work together to provide appropriate care to reduce this risk."

The researchers recommended women are questioned sensitively by medical professionals at the start of their pregnancy about their mental health history. They concluded this would help identify women likely to benefit from working with community perinatal mental healthcare teams alongside local maternity services.

This study was led by researchers from:

  • University of Exeter
  • King’s College London
  • London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
  • University of Liverpool

It was funded by NIHR’s Health and Social Care Delivery Research (HSDR) Programme. For more information, please visit the Funding and Awards page on our website. 

Read the full report in The Lancet Psychiatry.

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