September 18, 2007

Maternal Depression and Controlling Behavior Cause High Stress for Infants

As we've covered in the past - research is showing that children's brains are very sensitive to stress, and frequent or ongoing stress is very harmful to developing brains - greatly increasing the risk of mental illness for the child later in life.

Research is now identifying the exact stresses that children seem most sensitive to. Last week we saw some new research that came out that suggests that one way to identify stress in a young mother may be in how she holds her baby. Today, new research identifies how a depressed mother (depression is very stressful) changes her parenting behavior in a way which greatly increases the stress for the child.

While the focus of this study is teenage mothers, research has shown that the impact of depression is equally harmful and stressful for all mothers - which is why its so important for mothers to get treatment for any depression.

Following is coverage of this new study:

Teenage pregnancy is widely recognized to be a major public health concern. These young mothers face many life challenges and they have an increased risk for becoming depressed. How might the behavior of these young mothers be related to later psychiatric or behavioral problems in some of their offspring" A new study being published in Biological Psychiatry on September 15th suggests an association between a history of depression in the mothers, a particular style of mothering, “maternal overcontrol”, and increased stress reactivity of their infants.

Azar and colleagues measured the cortisol levels of infants both before and after a brief mild stressor. They found that a lifetime history of major depression in the mother and a maternal pattern of intrusive and overstimulating behavior toward their infant (“maternal overcontrol”) were associated with an increased release of the stress hormone, cortisol, in the infants following the mild stress exposure. The infants of mothers with a history of depression had also had lower pre-stress cortisol levels. Also, there was a correlation in the cortisol levels between mothers and their infants.

These findings add “to our small but growing body of knowledge on neurobiological differences in stress responses between infants of depressed and non-depressed mothers”, noted Dr. Azar. John H. Krystal, M.D., Editor of Biological Psychiatry and affiliated with both Yale University School of Medicine and the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, adds, “Teenage mothers and their offspring are both, in their own ways, vulnerable. As a result, teenage pregnancy is thought to be a setting for preventative educational programs that might help teenagers better cope with their upcoming challenges.”

Source Journal Article: “The Association of Major Depression, Conduct Disorder, and Maternal Overcontrol with a Failure to Show a Cortisol Buffered Response in 4-Month-Old Infants of Teenage Mothers


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