A new study suggests a mother’s depression and use of a common class of antidepressants can influence language development in babies.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Harvard University determined that maternal depression treatment with serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) can accelerate babies’ ability to attune to the sounds and sights of their native language.
Conversely, maternal depression untreated by SRIs may prolong the period of tuning.
The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“This study is among the first to show how maternal depression and its treatment can change the timing of language development in babies,” said Dr. Janet Werker of UBC’s Dept. of Psychology, the study’s senior author.
“At this point, we do not know if accelerating or delaying these milestones in development has lasting consequences on later language acquisition, or if alternate developmental pathways exist. We aim to explore these and other important questions in future studies.”
The study followed three groups of mothers – one being treated for depression with SRIs, one with depression not taking antidepressants and one with no symptoms of depression.
Researchers measured changes in heart rate and eye movement to sounds and video images of native and non-native languages. From this, the language development of babies at three intervals, including six and 10 months of age was calculated.
Researchers also studied how the heart rates of unborn babies responded to languages at the age of 36 weeks in the uterus.
“The findings highlight the importance of environmental factors on infant development and put us in a better position to support not only optimal language development in children but also maternal well-being,” said Werker, who adds that treatment of maternal depression is crucial.
“We also hope to explore more classes of antidepressants to determine if they have similar or different impacts on early childhood development.”
“These findings once again remind us that poor mental health during pregnancy is a major public health issue for mothers and their infants,” said co-author Tim Oberlander, M.D.
“Non-treatment is never an option. While some infants might be at risk, others may benefit from mother’s treatment with an antidepressant during their pregnancy. At this stage we are just not sure why some but not all infants are affected in the same way. It is really important that pregnant women discuss all treatment options with their physicians or midwives.”
Previous research by Werker has found that during the first months of life, babies rapidly attune to the language sounds they hear and the sights they see (movements in the face that accompany talking) of their native languages. After this foundational period of language recognition, babies begin focusing on acquiring their native tongues and effectively ignore other languages.
Findings from the current study show that the key developmental period – which typically ends between the ages of eight and nine months – can be accelerated or delayed, in some cases by several months.
In another recent study, Werker has found that this development period lasts longer for babies in bilingual households than in monolingual babies, particularly for the face recognition aspects of speech.
Source: University of British Columbia