Children whose mothers experience increasing levels of depression from before pregnancy until a few months after delivery are at greater risk of developing emotional, social and academic problems in adolescence, researchers in psychology at the University of California said.
The findings are published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
The recently published seven-year study, which tracked mothers and their children from conception through the children’s fifth birthday, is the first to show how changes in mothers’ levels of depression over time can affect children’s early childhood behavior and emotional well-being.
“The result of the study suggests that increased maternal symptoms of depression between conception and the postpartum period contribute to decreased attention and behavioral control in children, which may increase the risk of lifelong problems. However, parents should know that this can be counteracted with early childhood intervention,” said study author Gabrielle Rinne, a UCLA graduate student in psychology.
For the two-part study, researchers first analyzed data from 362 women.
The women, all of whom already had a young child, were followed during a subsequent pregnancy and interviewed four times about symptoms of depression, thus tracking how those symptoms changed over time.
Just under 75% of the women reported low symptoms of depression that did not change over the study period, while 12% of the low symptoms increased significantly and 7% of the symptoms remained high.
Children of mothers whose depression increased from conception to the postpartum period performed significantly worse on the computer task than did children of those mothers whose depression symptoms were consistently low.
“This study suggests that increasing depression may negatively affect children,” said senior study author Christine Dunkel Schetter, a professor emeritus of psychology and psychiatry at the University of California.
At the same time, she said, children whose mothers consistently reported mild symptoms of depression were not at risk.