It has long been known that maternal depression may affect infant development. Studies have shown that children of depressed parents are at an increased risk of developing depression themselves. It has also been determined that the amygdala’s microstructure — how it is wired — was seen as abnormal in two-week old infants born to depressed mothers. Abnormal amygdala function is a feature of mood and anxiety disorders, so this is a cause for concern.
A July 2018 study published in ScienceDirect takes this one step further and finds that a mother’s depression during pregnancy was connected to several adverse outcomes for her baby.
The study, known as The Psychiatry Research and Motherhood-Depression (PRAM-D) study, was led by Sarah Osborne MBBS, PhD, of King’s College London. Dr. Osborne and her colleagues found that mothers who had major depression during their pregnancy also had a shorter length of gestation by an average of 8 days compared with mothers who did not have depression. In addition, those who were diagnosed with major depressive disorder during pregnancy had several raised inflammatory and cortisol biomarkers in their third trimester. Mothers without depression did not have these raised markers.
In regards to the babies, those exposed to their mother’s depression in utero had adverse effects on neurobehavioral functioning as early as 6 days postnatal. This was marked by a significant difference in suboptimal functioning in several Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale clusters after adjustments. However, exposure to depression in utero did not appear to have any impact on the infants’ development as assessed by the Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development at 12 months of age.
In reference to cortisol responses to stress no difference was seen at 2 months of age, but these children did have higher cortisol responses to stress compared with the control children at 12 months of age.
Dr.Osborne told MedPage Today:
“Our findings that compared with women without depression in pregnancy, women with depression in pregnancy have increased stress-related biology, newborns with less optimal neurobehavioral function, and infants with a greater biological response to stress, confirmed our hypotheses. Our hypotheses were based on bringing together evidence from a combination of previous, but perhaps less clinically relevant, research.”
“We felt this [the study] was important, as depression is common in pregnancy, occurring in approximately 10% of women, and is easily recognized and treated. Furthermore, the study had the potential to deepen our understanding of how the biological environment of the developing fetus might affect its later development — so-called ‘developmental programming.'”
“The results of our study alone are not sufficient to make recommendations regarding clinical practice. However, our results will highlight the importance of actively looking for depression in pregnancy, and will inform clinicians when they are considering the risks and benefits of actively treating depression in pregnancy.”
More research is warranted in the area of depression during pregnancy and how it might affect not only mothers, but their babies as well. The good news is that in most cases, depression is treatable, and perhaps these new findings will encourage more pregnant women to seek help when needed.