Maternal Depression

Depression is increasingly recognized as a major worldwide public health issue. It has a negative impact on all aspects of an individual’s life–work and family–and can lead to suicide. Typically, depression is discussed as an adult problem affecting women or men, and increasingly, it is recognized as a significant problem for children. But far too rarely is depression, particularly maternal depression, considered through a lens that focuses on how it affects parenting and child outcomes, particularly for young children; how often it occurs in combination with other parental risks; and what kinds of strategies can prevent negative consequences for parents, for their parenting and for their young children.

According to data compiled by Placer County’s Campaign for Community Wellness, 50-70% of women experience depression during and after pregnancy which can last a few days to months. It affects one of every four women over their lifetime. Overall depression in fathers is estimated at 6%; however, 18% of fathers in Early Head Start report depressive symptoms. Nationally, depression is the single biggest mental health problem in our society and is highly correlated to suicide. In Placer County, the suicide rate (13.8%) is higher than the state average (9.4%). Maternal depression is widespread across race and socioeconomic levels, and has been linked to genetic composition, situational risk factors and circumstances, and environmental gene interaction. Disproportionately, it impacts low-income parents whose depression is embedded in their life circumstances, poverty, lack of social support, substance abuse, domestic violence, childhood abuse, and stress linked to a life of hardship, and too often, no hope. In addition to possible biological causes, another stress that contributes to or co-exists with maternal depression is having a child with special needs, such as developmental delays or a difficult temperament.

The profound consequences of maternal depression on maternal and child health include maternal self-neglect, poor nutrition and sleeping patterns, refusal of prenatal care, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, child abuse, poor coping skills, high levels of stress and anxiety, inability to bond and care for one’s baby, subsequent poor parenting skills, and sub-optimal child development. Maternal depression is also related to increased risk for low birth weight and preterm birth. Without a doubt, maternal depression is a significant risk factor affecting the well-being and school readiness of young children. It threatens two core parental functions: fostering healthy relationships and carrying out the management functions of parenting. The result, long tracked in child development research, has been linked to:

  • Increased rates of behavior problems, social/emotional maladjustment, and deficits in cognitive functioning in children from infancy through adolescence;
  • Below average scores on developmental measures and lower weight percentiles;
  • More difficulty with emotional regulation, lower levels of self-esteem, and more aggressive behavior displayed at age 2;
  • Poor performance on cognitive and behavioral tasks at age 3;
  • Higher rates of behavioral problems as preschoolers;
  • 2-3 times increased risk of having a major depressive disorder and 4-6 times overall more likely to receive a psychiatric diagnosis.

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