Study ties increasing depression in mothers to their child’s risk of behavioural issues

A new American study has found a link between mothers who experience rising levels of depression prior to becoming pregnant until the months following birth, and their children’s risk of developing behavioural issues.

The study, conducted by psychology researchers out of the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA), found that changes in a mothers’ depression over time may impact early childhood behavioural and emotional well-being.

“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 and UCLA graduate student Gabrielle Rinne in a press release.

“Parents should know, however, that this can be addressed through early childhood intervention,” she added.

The findings were published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed Journal of Affective Disorders.

The study was conducted in two parts over a seven-year period, prior to COVID-19, and tracked mothers and their children from preconception until the kids were five years old.

According to the study, researchers first analyzed data on 362 women, most of whom were Black or Hispanic and from low-income backgrounds, to look at the disparities in maternal and child health among poor, minority families.

The study reports that the women all already had a young child, and were followed through a subsequent pregnancy. The women were interviewed a total of four times about their symptoms of depression — once prior to becoming pregnant, twice during pregnancy and again about three months following birth — with researchers tracking how their feelings changed over time.

“The addition of a child to the family is a significant emotional and psychological adjustment that can involve both joy and distress,” Rinne said in the release. “Maternal depression is one of the most common complications of pregnancy and postpartum.”

The study found that just under 75 per cent of the women reported minor symptoms of depression that didn’t change over the course of the study.

However, 12 per cent were found to have minor symptoms that “significantly increased” over time and seven per cent had “persistently high symptoms.”

In the second part of the study, researchers looked at 125 of these women and their children several years later.

According to the study, the mothers were asked to describe their child’s temperament and behaviour when they reached age four. The researchers specifically wanted to know about emotional distress and how well the children were able to regulate emotions.

When the children turned five, researchers had them look at an iPad screen showing a series of fish, and tasked them with identifying the direction the middle fish was swimming in while ignoring the others.

Rinne explained in the release that high scores with this task show a greater ability to concentrate and focus one’s attention.

The study found that children of mothers who experienced increased depression from preconception through the postpartum period performed “significantly worse” on this task than those of mothers with consistently low depression symptoms.

However, the researchers note that there was no differences in performance between kids whose mothers had experienced consistently high depression and those whose mothers had consistently minor depression symptoms.

UCLA professor and senior author Christine Dunkel Schetter said in the release that the findings suggest a “pattern” in how motherhood depression may “adversely” affect their children.

While she acknowledged not all children of mothers with depression symptoms will experience problems, Dunkel Schetter said it is important to note that such kids are at higher risk of socio-emotional and behavioural issues.

Children whose mothers consistently reported low symptoms of depression were found to be not at risk, according to the study.

“Moms who experience depression or stress at multiple times should know the effects this can have on young children,” Dunkel Schetter said. “They can seek evaluation and treatment from a doctor or mental health professional for their children and themselves.”

The study’s authors say the findings highlight the “importance of comprehensive mental health care at multiple periods of the reproductive life course,” starting well before pregnancy and continuing after childbirth.

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