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When Their Moms Are Down, Even Babies Get the Blues

Health: Mothers who suffer from chronic depression somehow pass those despondent feelings on to their infants, new research shows.


A tsunami of well-intentioned books on how to care for a baby envelops most new mothers, not to mention the swell of word-of-mouth advice on cures for diaper rash, methods to train a baby to sleep through the night and the hottest developmental toys for sculpting baby's brain. What no one tells a mother is that one of the best things she can do for her child is care for her own mental health.

New research suggests a mother's state of mind is as essential to her baby's health as baby's physical environment. A group of recent studies, funded by the National Institutes for Mental Health, found that the newborn babies of mothers characterized as suffering from "chronic, low-grade depression" showed physical symptoms of depression.

The babies--as young as a day to 1 week old--were less expressive than other babies, had slower reflexes, slept unsoundly, had brain patterns similar to their depressed mothers and had heart rate patterns suggesting possible decreased neurological functioning. The mothers, aged 18 to 25 years, came from low-income households. None were reportedly taking drugs or alcohol during their pregnancies and all women received about the same level of labor medication.

"Most of the mothers in our study are depressed during pregnancy and it lasts throughout the perinatal period," says Nancy Jones, one of the research psychologists conducting the study at University of Miami School of Medicine's Touch Research Institute. "A lot of these mothers look to the infant to give them support and to love them, but they have a more lethargic and non-responsive baby. It creates a cycle."

In one of the studies, published in the journal "Infant Behavior and Development," developmental psychologist Brenda Lundy gave 24- to-72-hour-old newborns a behavioral assessment test developed by pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton. The 40 infants of depressed mothers had slower reactions (to a flashlight, bell, red ball and light pin prick) than babies of non-depressed mothers. They also showed less facial expressivity than the other babies, Jones says.

"Newborns show symptoms of depression similar to their mothers . . . who reported being sad, slowed down and depressed," Jones says.

In another soon-to-be-published study conducted by Jones, heart, sleep and brain patterns of 1-week-old babies were examined. The heart rates of babies of depressed mothers suggest the neurological connections between the heart and brain may be weaker than in other babies. Sleep patterns were also affected.

"These babies have a disorganized sleep," she says. "You can't say that the baby is in a deep sleep. It's related to physiological stress. We are sort of working on the possibility that there may be prenatal hormones that may be influencing this."

Perhaps most alarming, however, is the similarity between the brain patterns of the infants and their depressed mothers, measured with an electroencephalogram, a device that tracks electrical activity of the brain through the scalp.

"We looked at a situation where [the mothers and babies] were not processing information but were simply awake," Jones says. "The similar pattern was found in the left frontal lobe of the brain, which regulates positive emotions [such as happiness and curiosity]."


Such results are believed to be the earliest signs to date that the brains of babies of depressed mothers may be affected developmentally by the symptoms of a mother's depression: unresponsiveness, listlessness and overall lethargy. Researchers believe that untreated maternal depression, possibly even low-grade chronic depression and severe postpartum depression, may have far-reaching effects.

In a 1989 longitudinal study that began measuring depression in mothers as early as conception, psychology professor Geraldine Dawson at the University of Washington found that 1-year-old babies of severely depressed mothers also had reduced brain activity in the left frontal region. Measurements were taken again when children were 3 1/2, showing that the children of mothers who remain depressed still had decreased brain activity along with behavioral problems and sleep disturbances. Dawson also found higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The good news is the brain activity of children whose mothers got treatment returned to normal and they had no behavioral or sleep disturbances. "If mothers get treatment early on, there is no permanent or long-term effect," says Dawson, who is writing the conclusions to her latest brain activity measurement on the children, now 6 and 7.

"What we don't know is the effect on children whose depression did continue once they are in preschool, and it may be that it had permanent effects. The brain development between birth and 3 years may be a sensitive period."

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