Severe stress caused by a break-up or bereavement during pregnancy could have health repercussions for the unborn baby, according to a new study.
UK researchers have found children of mothers who suffer severe stress have a much greater chance of being sick by the age of four.
There was an even greater chance of illness if the mother experienced two traumatic experiences when she was pregnant.
Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London interviewed more than 150 women before and after childbirth about stressful events that affected them.
Four years later they were questioned about their child's health and how often they had visited the doctor or were hospitalised.
The researchers found a strong link between pregnancy stress and a child's poor health, particularly in terms of asthma and infection. However stress after the baby's birth did not have the same impact.
The study authors said this could be a result of hormonal changes or the mother's immune system affecting the child's immune system development.
"The result suggests the stress experienced during pregnancy induces biological changes in the unborn child that render it susceptible to the development of illness later in life," researcher Jasmin Wertz told the UK's Daily Mail.
Wertz's supervisor, psychiatrist Carmine Pariante, said that it is crucial pregnant women receive quality support.
"Everybody expects you to be happy because you are pregnant –– it's very, very difficult to go and say you are depressed," she said.
"But a pregnant woman who is depressed actually attracts a lot of empathy and sympathy."
The report was presented to the British Association for Psychopharmacology's annual conference.