Relationship strife leaves young children worried and scared
Young children can pick up on their parents' relationship problems, leaving them more likely to worry or scare easily, scientists say.
The research also shows expectant parents' emotional struggles have an impact on behavioural problems in their children.
Experts said they have shown for the first time that conflicts between couples can help to explain emotional problems in very young children.
The team from universities including Cambridge, Birmingham and New York said its findings highlight a pressing need for greater support for couples before, during and after pregnancy to improve outcomes for children.
"For too long the experiences of first-time dads have either been sidelined or treated in isolation from that of mums," said lead author Professor Claire Hughes, from Cambridge's Centre for Family Research.
"This needs to change because difficulties in children's early relationships with both mothers and fathers can have long-term effects."
The study is believed to be the first to look at the influence of both mothers' and fathers' well-being before and after birth on children's adjustment at 14 and 24 months of age.
Research showed the well-being of first-time mothers before birth had a direct impact on the behaviour of their children by the time they were two.
Mothers who suffered from prenatal stress and anxiety were more likely to see their child display behavioural problems such as temper tantrums, restlessness and spitefulness.
The researchers also found two-year-olds were more likely to exhibit emotional problems, including being worried, unhappy and tearful, scaring easily or being clingy in new situations if their parents had been having early postnatal relationship problems.
These ranged from a general lack of happiness in the relationship to rows and other kinds of conflict.
"Our findings highlight the need for earlier and more effective support for couples to prepare them better for the transition to parenthood," Prof Hughes added.