CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - At age 3, children whose mothers are chronically depressed fare significantly worse on tests and other measures showing school readiness, verbal comprehension and language skills than children of mothers who are never depressed, a major new study concludes. Those whose mothers are sometimes depressed fall somewhere in between, the research shows.
The study, conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and nine other U.S. centers, evaluated the effects of maternal depression on children's development. Early education experts consider it the largest and most carefully controlled research of its kind.
"Among other things, our findings show that women who are depressed shouldn't just tough it out but instead should seek help from health-care professionals and support from family and friends," said Dr. Martha Cox, senior scientist at UNC-CH's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center and principal investigator for the N.C. site. "That's because otherwise their children's development could suffer. Even if mothers continue to be depressed, they can still provide the kind of experience their children need."
Cox, also research professor in psychology, and Dr. Margaret Burchinal, research associate professor of psychology and director of the Graham center's design and statistical unit, led UNC-CH's participation in the study. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development funded and helped design it.
A report on the findings appears in the September issue of the journal Developmental Psychology.
Researchers followed 1,215 mothers and their infants from birth, observing interactions between them at home and at day-care centers. They also evaluated youngsters with various sophisticated tests of language and mental development and interviewed mothers about their levels of depression and their toddlers' behavior.
Most of the children, who are from racially and socially diverse families, now are in the third grade and will be followed at least through the sixth grade. For the new study, they were assessed at ages 1, 6, 15, 24 and 36 months.
"We found that depressed mothers in general were less sensitive to their children, that their children displayed poorer verbal and language skills and that those children showed more problem behaviors," Burchinal said. "Children whose mothers were more sensitive, however, did better on our measures and behaved better regardless of their mothers' level of depression."
Also, women with higher incomes and other advantages were more responsive and played better with their children despite their depression possibly because they were less stressed, she said. Income made no difference in sensitivity and responsiveness among mothers who were not depressed.
Earlier research has shown that mothers' interactions with their offspring play a crucial role in children's mental development, of which language skills are an important part.
Investigators considered their sample moderately but not perfectly representative of U.S. mothers and their children. Overall, about 55 percent participants were never depressed during their child's first three years, 38 percent were sometimes depressed and 8 percent were chronically depressed.
Women who were despondent most of the time not only were least sensitive but also were the only group to show a decline in sensitivity between the 15-month and 24-month assessments, Cox said. As toddlers emerged from the period some call the "terrible twos" and became less willful, interactions with mothers grew more positive.
Strengths of the study include its large sample size, the repeated direct assessments and the diversity of subjects, she said. The work is important because it helps show the impact of maternal depression on children's development more definitively than any previous research.
"We tend in our culture to expect people to deal with their problems by themselves unless those problems are just very extreme," Cox said. "Our group of mothers were not chosen because they had come to clinics for help but were just a community sample of women having children. Other studies have shown that women with young children are particularly vulnerable to depression, and our new findings indicate strongly that that depression can have important consequences for children."
Besides UNC-CH, which follows 130 children, other data collection centers are located at the universities of Arkansas at Little Rock, California at Irvine, Kansas, New Hampshire, Pittsburgh, Virginia, Washington at Seattle, Wisconsin, and Temple University. Research Triangle Institute staff in North Carolina's Research Triangle Park also participate in the project.
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