Teenagers are more likely to be depressed if their mothers
were depressed while pregnant, according to a new study.
Mothers' depression after giving birth was also tied to
their children's mental health years later, but possibly for different reasons,
Depression during pregnancy may affect a baby through stress
hormones that move across the placenta, Rebecca Pearson, from the University of
Bristol in the UK, and her colleagues said. That goes against the suggestion of
some researchers that depression is only important if it continues past the end
of pregnancy and impacts parenting. "It should be treated during pregnancy,
irrespective of if it continues during birth. It's as important during
pregnancy," Pearson said.
She said the findings mean therapy should be made available
to pregnant women with depression whenever possible. They also add another
layer to the debate over the use of antidepressants in pregnancy.
The data come from a large study that began following pregnant
women in England who were due to deliver in 1991 and 1992. Researchers surveyed
women twice during pregnancy and twice in their baby's first year about their
About 12% of women met the criteria for depression during
pregnancy and 7% did after birth. Researchers then followed families over time
through surveys given to the parents and children. The current study included
about 4 500 children.
At age 18, 8% of them reported symptoms of depression. Teens
were 47% more likely to be depressed themselves if their mothers had been
depressed during pregnancy, Pearson and her colleagues reported in JAMA
Psychiatry. That was still true when they untangled the effects of mothers'
depression before and after birth.
The study does not prove that exposure to a depressed mother
while in the womb is the cause of the teens' depression. But if one is an
effect of the other, it could be because of stress hormones such as cortisol,
which are higher in depressed people and able to cross the placenta to affect
the developing brain, the researchers suggested. Women who develop depression
before and during pregnancy may have genes that put them at greater depression
risk in general, and they pass on those genes to their children, said Laura
She has studied the effects of maternal depression at the
University of New Orleans but wasn't involved in the new research. Teens were
also depressed more often when their mothers had been depressed in the year
after they were born.
However, when the researchers looked at other family
characteristics, they found that link only remained among children of less
educated and disadvantaged mothers. "Postpartum depression seems to have a
negative impact on children's development because it affects how responsive
mothers are to their babies," Scaramella told Reuters Health. "It
inhibits their ability to really attend to and respond to their baby," she
More educated mothers may have more support and better
access to childcare, which could offset the effects of their depression on
their children, Pearson's team said. Pearson said that for any given child, the
extra risk related to a mother's depression is "quite small. "But the
findings do show it's important to take depression during pregnancy seriously
and make sure women get help, she added.
Harms of antidepressants
There are still concerns about the potential harms of
antidepressants to a developing baby. For example, some research suggests
babies are more likely to be born early when women use the drugs during
pregnancy. "We certainly don't want to say everyone should be
going on antidepressants, because we don't know the risks," Pearson told
Although talk therapy can be expensive and isn't always available,
it should be prioritised for pregnant women who are depressed, Pearson said.
"There's absolutely no controversy around that. "She said women should
do what they can to put their own mental health first during pregnancy, and know
that by doing that they are also looking out for their baby.