Children born to mothers who develop postpartum depression appear to be more likely than other kids to be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder by age 6, researchers found.
The rate of psychiatric disorders, mainly anxiety and conduct disorders, was 60% in children exposed to maternal depression early in life and 15% in other kids, according to Ruth Feldman, PhD, of Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
And it appears that oxytocin -- a hormone associated with love, social bonding, and parent-infant bonding -- is involved in mediating the association, Feldman reported on a conference call in advance of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ACNP) meeting in Waikoloa, Hawaii.
- Note that this study was published as an abstract and presented at a conference. These data and conclusions should be considered to be preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
- Explain that children born to mothers who develop postpartum depression appear to be more likely than other kids to be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder by age 6.
- Point out that oxytocin, a hormone associated with love, social bonding, and parent-infant bonding, is involved in mediating the association.
Among the children with depressed mothers, those who did not develop a psychiatric disorder had better-functioning oxytocin systems, which could have implications for early interventions, Feldman said.
Postpartum depression is estimated to occur in 15% to 18% of women in industrial societies, many of whom go undiagnosed. So Feldman and her colleagues set out to assess its relationship with the mental health of children.
From a cohort of women who completed measures of anxiety and depression on their second postpartum day, the researchers selected 155 mother-infant pairs to follow for six years.
Overall, 30% of the mothers were consistently depressed during the child's early life, 8% had subclinical depression or anxiety, and 62% had no signs of psychiatric disorders.
The depressed mothers had more dysfunctional oxytocin systems compared with the other women, manifested through lower salivary oxytocin levels and an increased likelihood of being homozygous for a risk variant of the oxytocin receptor gene. Their husbands also had lower oxytocin levels.
Oxytocin seemed to influence the relationship between postpartum depression and psychiatric disorders in children, Feldman said.
Among the mother-child pairs that included a depressed mother, children who did not develop a psychiatric disorder by age 6, along with their mothers, had fewer disruptions of the oxytocin system.
In addition, as seen on recorded family interactions, children of depressed mothers who did not develop a disorder had better social and emotional skills, including improved social engagement and empathy toward strangers, -- than children who developed a disorder.
Early interventions, which could include increasing maternal touch, gaze, and caregiving or the intranasal administration of oxytocin, could trigger better functioning of the oxytocin system when the children are young, Feldman said.
"And that may provide some protective barrier to the development of these psychopathologies or less optimal social and emotional development," she said.
Feldman did not make any financial disclosures.