Mother's Mental Health Has Large Impact on Child's Health and Development
> 5/15/2008 11:42:22 AM

For new parents, the changes brought on by a baby’s birth can bring as much stress and anxiety as joy. Many struggle with depression and other forms of mental illness, and the state of their mental health often affects the health of their children, as recent research has shown. In a study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham report that the children of severely depressed mothers are nearly three times as likely to experience accidental injuries during their infant and toddler years.

The researchers questioned 1,364 new mothers about any symptoms of depression they experienced, categorizing them by the severity of their symptoms. The women were also asked to record any accidents requiring medical care that their children suffered from their time of birth until they entered first grade. Many mothers were moderately depressed at times—15.5 percent— and 2.5 percent reported severe and chronic depression. The infant and toddler children of these women were almost three times as likely to be injured accidentally, even when the researchers controlled for sex, socioeconomic background, the child's temperament, and other factors that might increase a child's risk of accidents.

The reasons behind the relationship between maternal depression and injury may lie with some of the most common symptoms of depression, the researchers explain. Depression can cause an individual to become inattentive and irritable, and these symptoms can have detrimental consequences, especially if the mother has primary responsibility for watching her child. Keeping a close eye on the child may become more difficult, and she may also have more difficulty making sure that the places where her child plays are sufficiently safe. The heightened risk associated with maternal depression lasted only until children were three years olds, and the researchers surmise that at this point children may be able to better recognize and avoid situations and objects that could cause them harm.

A mother’s mental state can have a great impact on her children’s health, and recognition of this connection may go a long way toward improving the outcomes of their children, as another study recently demonstrated. Published in BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, the study included 791 three-year-olds and their mothers and focused on factors that could help physicians to more accurately identify children at risk for developmental delays. The mothers completed a questionnaire about their own health and their child's health, while the children were screened for developmental problems. Overall, 11 percent of the children were scored as having a high risk for developmental delays, but of these high-risk children, less than half had been previously referred by their doctors for a more detailed assessment. Children most likely to have been given a developmental evaluation had vision or hearing problems or had been born prematurely, an indication that most referrals are driven by the presence of medical problems. However, the researchers found that the mothers of high-risk children were more likely to have a history of depression or abuse, to have had postpartum depression, or to have a strained relationship with their partner. By taking the maternal mental health and family situations into account, the researchers suggest, doctors may be better able to identify children who would benefit from further developmental assessments.

A parent's struggle with mental illness can affect their child in many ways, and these studies illustrate the importance of seeking treatment. The problems faced by parents can accumulate, and for children, growing up in an unhealthy environment can influence their long-term outcomes, making them more likely to have difficulties in school or develop behavioral problems. With the appropriate care, parents can improve their own health and create a home environment that will promote wellness for themselves and their children.

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