Study links increasing symptoms to behavioral problems in children

Children whose mothers experience increasing levels of depression between the pre-pregnancy period and the months following childbirth are at greater risk of developing emotional, social and academic problems during their youth, report psychology researchers. UCLA and their colleagues.

Their recently published seven-year study, which followed mothers and offspring from preconception to age 5, is the first to demonstrate how changes in mothers’ levels of depression over time can have an impact on early childhood behavior and emotional well-being, the authors said.

“Our results suggest that increased maternal symptoms of depression from preconception to postpartum contribute to children’s decreased attention and behavioral control, which may increase the risk of lifelong problems. of life,” said lead author Gabrielle Rinne, a UCLA psychology graduate student. “Parents should be aware, however, that this can be resolved with early childhood intervention.”

For the two-part study, researchers first analyzed data from 362 women — most of whom were black or Hispanic and from low-income backgrounds — collected as part of a Community Child Health Network study, a collaboration between health scientists. from UCLA and other institutions, as well as community partners, who investigated maternal and child health disparities among poor and minority families.

The women, who all already had a young child, were followed during a subsequent pregnancy and were asked four times about their symptoms of depression – once before becoming pregnant, twice during pregnancy and again around three months later. the birth of their baby – with researchers monitoring how these symptoms have changed over time.

Just under 75% of women reported mild symptoms of depression that did not change over the study period, while 12% had mild symptoms that increased significantly and 7% had persistent symptoms.

For the second part of the study, the researchers followed 125 of these women several years later. When their children were 4 years old or preschool age, mothers were asked to describe in detail their child’s temperament and behavior, particularly their experiences of emotional distress and their ability to regulate 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 middle fish was facing while ignoring the direction of all other fish. Higher scores on this task reflect a greater ability to focus and inhibit attention to surrounding stimuli, Rinne said.

Children of mothers whose depression worsened from preconception to the postpartum period performed significantly worse on the computer task than those whose mothers reported consistently low symptoms of depression. Interestingly, there was no difference in performance between children whose mothers had consistently high depression and those whose mothers had consistently low depression.

The conclusions are published in the Affective Disorders Diary (free access until June 15).

“This study suggests that a pattern of escalating depression can negatively affect children,” said lead author Christine Dunkel Schetter, a distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry at UCLA who played a leading role in the design of the study and in the development of the interviews. She noted that not all of these children are destined to encounter problems, but pointed out that “they are more at risk of social-emotional and behavioral problems and problems in school”.

Children whose mothers have consistently reported mild symptoms of depression, she said, are not at risk.

“Moms who repeatedly experience depression or stress should be aware of the effects it 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

“Adding 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 among new mothers range up to 25%.

The study findings, Rinne said, support “the importance of comprehensive mental health care at multiple periods of the reproductive life cycle,” beginning even before pregnancy and continuing afterward — especially for mothers who feel a high level of distress at all times.

Los Angeles County resources for maternal mental health care during pregnancy are available here. If a mother is depressed but too busy to see a doctor or therapist, she can find help through evidence-based online apps. New forms of digital mental health treatment can also be effective, Dunkel Schetter said.

The study’s co-authors are Elysia Poggi Davis of the University of Denver, Madeleine Shalowitz of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, and Sharon Ramey of Virginia Tech. Nicole Mahrer, former UCLA postdoctoral researcher and current assistant professor of psychology at La Verne University, and former UCLA postdoctoral researcher Christine Guardino, who is now assistant professor of psychology at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania , participated in the research.

The study, which was conducted before COVID-19, ended in 2019. It was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Nursing Research Institute nurses, both part of the National Institutes of Health.

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