Maternal Depression Could Last a Lifetime

by Tiffany Field, Ph.D.


Imagine a pregnant woman looking at herself in the mirror and seeing little facial expression, dark circles under her eyes from poor sleep and dull skin and hair from a poor appetite. All of these are signs of depression and researchers believe that a depressed pregnant woman may transmit depression to her fetus. Researchers have discovered many ways that being born depressed can have detrimental effects on newborns, infants and young children. But psychologists are developing ways to help break this "cycle of depression" from mother to infant.

The number of women suffering from depression during pregnancy or afterward is disheartening. During pregnancy, an estimated 10 to 12 percent of mothers experience chronic depression. An estimated 30 percent experience postnatal depression, and an estimated 40 to 70 percent have postpartum blues.

Researcher Tiffany Field, Ph.D., from the University of Miami Medical School, has been studying maternal depression and its effects on newborns, infants and young children for the last 20 years. Her most recent research revealed that infants born to depressed mothers have elevated stress hormones, brain activity suggestive of depression, show little facial expression and have other depressive symptoms such as loss of appetite and sleep. "When these infants are born they mirror the depressive symptoms that their mothers exhibit," says Dr. Field.

Untreated depressed newborns grow into depressed infants. As infants they are slower to learn to walk, weigh less and are less responsive to others. Left yet again untreated, depressed infants grow into depressed toddlers. They then start preschool and have behavior problems, such as aggression, are mean and continue to show brain activity suggestive of chronic depression.

Knowing that depression can be transmitted to the fetus and knowing the effects continue through preschool age was only the beginning of a solution to this problem. The next step in Dr. Field's research was to find a way to counteract the effects of depression on the infants' development. And, "even though the mother is battling depression, she has to be actively involved in suppressing its effects on her child," says Dr. Field.

Dr. Field and other researchers have been testing treatments to help the mother interact with her infant in a way that will enhance the infant's growth and development. One effective treatment is tactile/kinesthetic stimulation or massage therapy. The infants of depressed mothers were massaged on all parts of their bodies for 15 minutes a day, two days a week, for six weeks. Infants treated with massage therapy showed improved sleep, cried less, were more responsive to others and their stress hormones decreased.

Another treatment shown to improve interaction between depressed mothers and their depressed infants is interaction coaching. During interaction coaching the mother wears a "bug" in her ear. The mother and child are left to play in an observation room while a coach gives the mother instructions on how to positively interact with her infant. For mothers who are less active with their infants, game-playing techniques are taught. These games generate activity increasing the infant's visual attentiveness. For mothers who tend to overstimulate their infants, slowing techniques are taught -- one method is to ask the mother to imitate everything the infant does. Video feedback is then provided for the mother to practice these interactions at home.

Depressed newborn, depressed infant, depressed toddler... Do untreated depressed children grow up to be depressed adults? Researchers can't answer this question yet. It is likely that when left untreated, a depressed child grows into a depressed adolescent who is more prone to behavior problems. The cycle can continue from adolescence to young adulthood to parenthood, and remain unbroken in many cases.



The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 151,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 50 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 58 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

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