It has often been reported that children whose mothers are depressed have more problems than children whose mothers are not depressed. This association between mothers’ depression and children’s problems could arise for many reasons. Examples include the effect of maternal depressive symptoms on the children; genetic vulnerability to depression on the part of the children of depressed mothers; and depressed mothers’ difficulty in coping with their children.
Studies have shown that not only depressed mothers but also teachers and other informants report elevated problems among children of depressed mothers. A Finnish research team has added a new dimension to the study of relations between maternal depression and children’s problems by assessing maternal depression during the last trimester of pregnancy and then 1 week, 2 weeks, 6 months, and 8 to 9 years after the child was born (Luoma et al., 2001). Maternal depression was assessed at each point with the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (BPDS).
The children’s problems, competencies, and adaptive functioning were assessed with the CBCL and TRF at ages 8 to 9 years. Maternal depression assessed at several time points significantly predicted high problem scores and low competence and adaptive scores at ages 8 to 9 years. However, the most striking findings emerged from logistic regressions that tested prediction of combined CBCL and TRF scores from prenatal, postnatal, and concurrent maternal depressive symptoms, plus maternal education, marital status, and age, family socioeconomic status, number of children in the family, and the child’s gender: After controlling for all the other potential predictors, the researchers found that prenatal depressive symptoms remained the only significant predictors of the combined CBCL and TRF Externalizing and Total Problems scores at ages 8 to 9 years.
Whether the predictive power of prenatal depressive symptoms reflected physiological effects on the unborn child, genetic vulnerabilities shared by mother and child, both of these factors, or other factors, it appears that the previously reported concurrent associations of maternal depression with child problems may be by-products of causal factors that originate much earlier.
Reference: Luoma, I., Tamminen, T., Kaukonen, P., Laippala, P., Puura, K., Salmelin, R., & Almqvist, F. (2001). Longitudinal study of maternal depressive symptoms and child well-being. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40, 1367-1374.