Children from unintended pregnancies are more likely to experience depressive symptoms in early adulthood compared to children from intended pregnancies, but there’s little evidence of a causal relationship, according to a new study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Instead, the link between fertility intentions and young adult depression is more likely due to the mother’s socioeconomic background and the resulting lack of access to resources and services.

“Although the research doesn’t suggest a causal link, that doesn’t imply that unintended childbearing is without lasting effects on children,” said Dr. Jessica Su, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University at Buffalo (UB).

“In fact, I think it’s an important characteristic of the family environment that contextualizes the child’s development. It’s an indicator of the importance of social resources over the developing life course.”

It is estimated that just over one-third of all births in the U.S. are unintended, a particularly large fraction compared to other developed countries. As a sociologist, Su said her immediate questions center on the causes and consequences.

“This has driven a lot of my research, especially because people in disadvantaged populations are much more likely to have unintended pregnancies,” she said. “So understanding this as a social problem is key in terms of overall social inequality.”

Previous research has shown that children from unintended pregnancies tend to have poorer health and development than those from intended pregnancies. Since unplanned births can contribute to risk factors in childhood, Su asks how that might impact the child’s young adult years.

What happens in the long term? It’s a question researchers have not raised often enough. In fact, Su said only two studies have looked at how these children fare in adulthood.

“Both of these studies were done roughly 50 years ago and were based on samples of white parents, the population segment least likely to have an unintended pregnancy,” she said. “And one of them was conducted in the Czech Republic, so the results are not generalizable to contemporary patterns of fertility in the U.S.”

Su’s research uses intergenerational data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which started reporting in the late 1970s and includes information on the mother’s background before she had children, a critical factor when it comes to focusing on the parent-child relationship.

“I’m trying to build on previous research and extend it to a nationally representative population and contemporary sample, but also look specifically at depressive symptoms,” she said.

Source: University at Buffalo