• Article
  • October 16, 2018

Maternal Depression May Alter Stress and Immune Markers in Children

Research suggests depression in women may affect their children's stress and physical well-being throughout life.

In a study published in Depression & Anxiety, researchers followed 125 children from birth to 10 years. At 10 years, researchers measured the mothers' and children's cortisol (CT) and secretory immunoglobulin (s-IgA), markers of stress in the immune system. They also observed mother-child interactions, conducted psychiatric diagnoses, and evaluated the children's emotional, mental and behavioral health symptoms.

Researchers found depressed mothers had higher CT and s-IgA levels, and they displayed negative parenting styles, characterized by intrusion in the child's life and high levels of criticism of the child.

Children of depressed mothers tended to exhibit certain psychiatric disorders, have higher s-IgA levels, and display greater social withdrawal. These biological and emotional impacts contributed to the children externalizing and internalizing problems. Children exhibit externalizing behavioral issues with rule-breaking and aggressive behavior, while children who internalize problems show symptoms of anxiety, depression, withdrawal and somatic symptoms.

"Following mothers and children across the first decade of life, we found exposure to maternal depression impairs functioning of the child's immune system and stress response," says Ruth Feldman, Ph.D., the study's senior author. "Such disruptions to the child's stress and immune system led to greater child psychopathology." She says the same factors that affect the mothers' stress and immune system, which reduced the quality of maternal caregiving, also impaired the child's stress response and immunity.

The findings show the complex effects of maternal depression on children's physiology, health and psychopathology and the need for early interventions that specifically target maternal stress and enhance parenting behavior.

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