Moms of very fussy infants are more likely to struggle with depressive symptoms, according to a new study published in the journal Academic Pediatrics. The new findings add to previous research suggesting that mothers of more irritable infants report significantly less confidence and more stress than mothers of less fussy infants.
“Pediatricians and providers should pay close attention to mothers who describe difficulty soothing their babies,” said senior author Prachi Shah, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan (U-M) C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and an associate research scientist at U-M’s Center for Human Growth and Development.
“Early interventions may help reduce the risk of maternal depression that negatively impacts a child-parent relationship and that may be harmful to both the health of a mother and child.”
Importantly, the study found that moms of fussy infants born late preterm and full term were actually more likely to experience more severe levels of maternal depression, compared to moms of fussy infants who were born very preterm. This may be due to the higher levels of support given to parents of very preterm babies.
For the study, the U-M-led research team evaluated the data of more than 8,200 children and their parents. They looked at whether the degree of a baby’s prematurity in combination with infant fussiness may influence the severity of maternal depressive symptoms.
The findings show that mothers of very preterm, fussy infants (born at 24-31 weeks) had about twice the odds of experiencing mild depressive symptoms compared to moms of very preterm infants without fussiness.
However, mothers of fussy babies born moderate-late preterm (32-36 weeks gestation) as well as moms of full-term babies were about twice as likely to report moderate to severe depressive symptoms compared to moms of less irritable babies born at the same gestational age.
“We found that maternal depression risk varied by gestational age and infant fussiness. Mothers of fussy infants born late preterm and full term are more likely to experience more severe levels of maternal depression, than mothers of fussy infants who were born more preterm,” Shah said.
“These findings reinforce that all mothers caring for babies with more difficult temperaments may need extra help managing the emotional toll. Early screening for infant fussiness may help identify mothers with depressive symptoms in need of support, but may be especially important for mothers of infants born mildly preterm, in whom the symptoms of depression are more severe.”
Shah notes that while very preterm babies have a higher risk of death than babies born later, the perinatal care of infants born very preterm may actually help buffer against more severe maternal depression.
Very preterm infants are often cared for in a neonatal ICU setting where part of the specialized care includes guidance focused on the vulnerabilities tied to preterm birth. As parents transition home they often receive a significant amount of postnatal support and developmental follow up, including referrals to early intervention programs, home visiting and subsequent care in neonatal clinics.
“The additional support and services provided to families of very premature children help prepare parents for the potential challenges associated with caring for a preterm infant and may help mitigate the risk for maternal depressive symptoms,” Shah said.
However, she noted that mild depressive symptoms may progress into more severe depressive symptoms, and should also be addressed as early as possible.
The study also found that maternal traits associated with prenatal stress and socioeconomic disadvantages — such as lower income, unmarried status and smoking — were tied to a greater risk for both mild and moderate-severe maternal depressive symptoms.