According to UCLA psychology professors and colleagues, children whose mothers suffer escalating levels of depression from the time of conception until shortly after delivery are at a higher risk of experiencing emotional, social, and intellectual issues later in life.
Their seven-year research, which followed mothers and their children from conception to age five, is the first to show how variations in mothers’ depression levels over time might affect early childhood behaviour and emotional well-being, according to the authors.
The findings are published in the Journal of Affective Disorders. “Our findings suggest that increases in mother’s symptoms of depression from preconception to postpartum contribute to children’s lower attention and behavioural control, which can raise the risk of problems across the life span,” said lead author Gabrielle Rinne, a UCLA psychology graduate student. “Parents should know, however, that this can be addressed through early childhood intervention.”
The researchers used data from 362 women, the majority of whom were Black or Hispanic and came from low-income families, collected as part of a study by the Community Child Health Network, a collaboration of health scientists from UCLA and other institutions, as well as community partners, that looked into disparities in maternal and child health among poor and minority families.
The women, all of whom already had a young child, were followed through a subsequent pregnancy and were interviewed four times about their depression symptoms: once before becoming pregnant, twice during pregnancy, and three months after their baby’s birth, with researchers tracking how these symptoms changed over time.
Just under 75% of the women had mild depression symptoms that did not change during the research period, whereas 12% had low symptoms that dramatically increased, and 7% had chronically high symptoms.
The researchers followed up with 125 of these women many years later for the second portion of the study. The mothers were asked to explain in detail their children’s temperament and behaviour when they were 4, or preschool age, including their experiences with emotional discomfort and their capacity to manage their emotions.
Then, at age 5, the children performed a task requiring focused attention. Looking at an iPad screen showing a series of fish, they were asked to identify the direction the fish in the middle was facing while ignoring the direction of all the other fish. Higher scores on this task reflect a greater ability to concentrate and inhibit attention to surrounding stimuli, Rinne said.
Children whose mothers’ depression levels had risen from preconception to postpartum scored considerably worse on the computer task than those whose mothers’ depression levels had remained stable. Surprisingly, there were no differences in performance between children whose mothers had suffered from depression on a regular basis and those whose mothers had suffered from depression on a regular basis.
“This study suggests that a pattern of increasing depression may adversely affect children,” said senior author Christine Dunkel Schetter, a distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry at UCLA who had a lead role in study design and in interview development. She noted that not all of these kids are destined to experience problems but emphasized that “they are at higher risk of socio-emotional and behavioural issues and problems at school.”
Children whose mothers consistently reported low symptoms of depression, she said, are not at risk.
“Moms who experience depression or stress at multiple times should know the effects this can have on young children,” Dunkel Schetter added. “They can seek evaluation and treatment from a doctor or mental health professional for their children and themselves.”
The importance of getting treatment for maternal depression
“The addition of a child to the family is a significant emotional and psychological adjustment that can involve both joy and distress,” Rinne said. “Maternal depression is one of the most common complications of pregnancy and postpartum.”
In Los Angeles County, she pointed out, estimates of depression during pregnancy and in new mothers range as high as 25 per cent.
The study’s findings, Rinne said, support “the importance of comprehensive mental health care at multiple periods of the reproductive life course,” beginning even before pregnancy and continuing afterwards — especially for mothers who are feeling an elevated level of distress at any point.
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