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Maternal Depression Can Impact Children's Health

Maternal depression is not only an ongoing struggle for mothers, but research suggests children of depressed mothers can be impacted in multiple ways.

For example, a recent study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders noted that mothers who are depressed have a reduced responsiveness toward infant distress, which can lead to harmful effects on the child.

However, the small pilot study stated that women who received cognitive behavioral therapy treatment had a reduction in their depression and as a result, were also more responsive toward infant distress.

Another study published in the journal Pediatrics found that children ages 4 and 5 were more likely to be short for their age if their mothers were depressed starting around nine months after the child was born.

An article about the study on Medpage Today stated that children of depressed mothers could have an “increased stress response,” which could lead to higher cortisol levels and lower levels of growth hormones. This could lead to a shorter height.

Mothers with depression might practice “poor parenting behaviors and feeding practices” as well, and children might form an insecure attachment with depressed mothers.

The article added that stunted growth at a young age is associated with various negative outcomes, such as poor development, reduced scholastic performance, smaller body size as an adult, and higher levels of death.

Nerina Garcia-Arcement, a licensed clinical psychologist, said in an email that there are many negative health outcomes for children of depressed mothers. For example, children of depressed mothers tend to visit the emergency room more often, and they might even develop depression in their teens.

“A depressed mother often is less responsive to their child's needs (i.e., when distressed, hungry) and does not have the emotional and physical energy to play and cuddle with their child,” Garcia-Arcement said.

“This can be disruptive to forming a secure and healthy emotional bond with each other. When a child does not feel safe and secure they can go on to become isolated, have difficulties making friends and develop anxiety and depression.”

Mothers suffering from depression need to make treatment a priority for their own health as well as their children’s.

“A parent is modeling for a child how to cope with challenges,” Garcia-Arcement said.

“The best example a mother could set for her child is that when you don't feel well, you don't ignore it. Instead you prioritize your well-being and you seek out help. Things they can do includes speaking to a mental health professional, reaching out to friends and family for social support, attending mom groups in person or participating online.”

She suggested that mothers make a point of getting out of the house every day for 15 minutes minimum. It is best to exercise, but mothers can even take their children for a walk or saunter in the neighborhood or at the mall with their babies in a stroller.

“Mothers should ask for child care assistance from their partner, family or friends in order to have time to do things alone,” Garcia-Arcement said.

“Moms need time [to] rest and catch up on sleep (sleep deprivation makes depression worse). They must do something kind for themselves, such as taking a hot bath, reading a book, getting a massage, engaging in a neglected hobby, and watching a comedy that will make them laugh. Reach out and meet up with a supportive friend.”

She also suggested spending bonding time with children for at least 10 minutes a day, which can lead to a greater connection, and children can also feel more safe and secure.

Ramani Durvasula, a psychology professor at California State University, said in an email that since mothers tend to be primary caregivers, children can suffer in many aspects of life if their mothers are depressed.

For example, children might not receive the nutrition they need and might have reduced sleep. They could also develop anxiety, depression and social withdrawal.

Mothers need to eat healthy, sleep and exercise consistently. Especially for women who have a history of depression, it’s important to make a plan for increased support once the baby comes.

“Many mothers try to be superwoman/supermom - and maternal depression is not part of that plan,” Durvasula said.

“Lots of times people write it off to fatigue and stress, and untreated depression can get worse and worse. Depression is a treatable disorder, and when there are children involved it is critical that it be managed to ensure the health of mother and children.”

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