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Maternal depression can impact child mental and physical health

Maternal depression has been repeatedly linked with negative childhood outcomes, including increased psychopathology.  Now, a new study shows that depression in mothers may impact on their children's stress levels,  as well as their physical and mental well-being throughout life.

In the study, published in the journal  Depression & Anxiety,  the researchers followed 125 children from birth to 10 years.

At 10 years old, the mothers’ and children’s cortisol (CT) and secretory immunoglobulin (s-IgA)—markers of stress and the immune system (see below)—were measured, and mother-child interaction was observed.

Psychiatric assessment 

The mothers and children also had psychiatric diagnoses, and the children's externalising and internalising symptoms were reported.



Internalising disorders include depression, withdrawal, anxiety, and loneliness. They are often how we 'feel inside', such as anger, pain, fear or hurt, but may not show it In contrast, externalising symptoms exhibit themselves in behaviours such as delinquency and aggression.  They are what we do rather than what we feel.



Immunoglobulins are used by the immune system to neutralise pathogens, such as harmful bacteria.  They are produced by specialised cells of the immune system (B cells) and come in two main types.  A soluble form is secreted by the cells (s-IgA) and can be found in the plasma.  The other kind is attached to cell membranes.  The immunoglobulins produced are continually modified to recognise and neutralise new invaders.  Thus, the presence of s-IgA is a marker of immune system function.

Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands.  The amount of cortisol is controlled by a part of the brain called the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland.   This axis (the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal axis) is our body's alarm system.

Usually, the alarm will switch off once the event is over, but what happens if the alarm doesn't switch off, and cortisol remains at persistently high levels?  Then it can lead to anxiety and depression and other pathologies.


Impact on the alarm system of the body

In the study,  the depressed mothers had higher CT and s-IgA levels, and their parenting was characterised by higher negativity, intrusion, and hostility.


HPA-axis malfunction,  and higher s-IgA evening levels were found in both the depressed mothers and their children.
Children of these depressed mothers tended to exhibit certain psychiatric disorders, had higher s-IgA levels and displayed greater social withdrawal.

The associations between maternal depression, lower maternal sensitivity, and negative maternal care are well established with previous studies describing the adverse outcomes of such parenting, including insecure attachment and child behaviour problems.

The lead author of the study, Dr Ruth Feldman, of the Interdisciplinary Centre Herzliya in Israel, says

Following mothers and children across the first decade of life, we found that exposure to maternal depression impairs functioning of the child's immune system and stress response. Such disruptions to the child's stress and immune system, in turn, led to greater child psychopathology.  

The study also found that the impairments to the child's stress response and immunity were shaped by similar effects of the depression on the mothers' stress and immune system and their consequent impact on reducing the quality of maternal caregiving.

Our findings show the complex effects of maternal depression on children's physiology, health, and psychopathology and advocate the need for early interventions that specifically target maternal stress and enhance parenting behaviour.






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