Mothers who are concerned about their own health may unwittingly be passing their anxieties on to their children

Mothers who are concerned about their own health may unwittingly be passing their anxieties on to their children.

A new study of parenting suggests that mothers who suffer from certain illnesses like Irritable Bowel Syndrome are more likely to take their babies to the doctors for a range of minor problems.

One effect could be that as they grow up, the children will learn from their mothers’ behaviour - and be more likely to seek treatment for similar conditions when they are adults.

The findings are based on data collected by the University of Bristol’s Children of the 90s project, also known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. The research is published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology.

The report’s author, Oxford psychologist Catherine Crane, says Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a condition which is still poorly understood.  

Some doctors believe that people who go to their GP to seek treatment for the symptoms of IBS are also more likely to show high levels of illness behaviour, or to be health anxious or bothered by other medically unexplained symptoms.

It has been suggested that the tendency to show high levels of illness behaviour, where a person experiences a high level of disruption or disability given the outward severity of their physical symptoms, may begin during childhood.

Previous studies have shown that children who have mothers with IBS are more likely to go to the doctor.   But until now researchers have been unable to show whether it was the mother’s decision, or whether the child was imitating the mother and complaining more of physical problems.

Dr Crane went back through the health records of 220 infants up to 18 months of age comparing those where mothers were taking medication for functional bowel symptoms (mostly IBS) with a group of infants whose mothers had suffered stomach ulcers.

Overall there was no difference in infant health problems reported by the two groups – but there was a significant difference in visits to the doctors, especially for infants’ cold, snuffles and minor accidents, by the mothers with FBS (functional bowel symptoms).  There was no difference when it came to more serious conditions – or significantly, gastro-intestinal symptoms.  

Dr Crane says: “We know that the children of people with IBS tend to use health care more than average, and that having a parent with IBS is associated with reporting symptoms of IBS in later life oneself.  Those findings cannot be attributed solely to genetic factors and this new research suggests that at least part of the explanation may be differences in parenting – although as the children get older, it is quite likely that they would imitate their parents’ illness behaviour, which in turn would reinforce parents’ concern.

“The parents’ behaviour in dealing with their children’s minor illnesses may be one factor which makes the children more vulnerable to a range of functional syndromes when they are adults.” http://www.bris.ac.uk

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