How Kids Are Affected
It can be a tremendous challenge for depressed moms to provide many of the things that children need most -- affection, patience, playfulness, and consistent limit-setting. Not surprisingly, clinically depressed moms are self-critical and indecisive, so that every choice -- from what to make for dinner to how warmly to dress the baby -- can seem overwhelming. But even mild symptoms of depression can affect kids. Children whose mothers have a chronic low-level form of depression known as dysthymia are at risk simply because of the duration of their mom's illness.
The impact of a mother's depression differs depending on how old her child is, and what his needs and challenges are at that age. Here's what experts now know.
Bonding is particularly difficult for moms with PPD. They're less likely to play with their babies, make eye contact, or speak in an engaging voice. As a result, babies can become anxious and fearful. "Infants may be withdrawn and whiny, and may stop reacting to people at all," says psychiatrist David Fassler, M.D., author of "Help Me, I'm Sad": Recognizing, Treating, and Preventing Childhood and Adolescent Depression. Recent research has also found that breastfed infants whose mothers have PPD for more than two months gain weight more slowly than babies whose moms aren't depressed.
"I loved my son in the sense that I felt obligated to take care of him," recalls Holly Herring Shuman, of San Diego, "but I didn't have a lot of feeling for him -- and I was sure he sensed it." Fortunately, with the help of antidepressants, Shuman overcame her depression by her son's first birthday. Now 5, he seems unaffected by the year she struggled with PPD. "We're very close," she says.
Toddlers and Preschoolers
A young child's brain is shaped by the interactions he has with adults who are close to him. It takes a lot of energy and ingenuity to care for a child this age, but depressed moms are more likely to feel drained, irritable, and easily frustrated. As a result, their children have trouble regulating their own moods, cooperating with requests, and mastering problem-solving skills, according to a large study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Three-year-olds with depressed mothers are also more likely to perform poorly on measures of language skills and school readiness than children with mothers who aren't depressed.
Kids this age are often forced to become mini adults, taking over such duties as caring for younger siblings or making meals, because their mother is too depressed to function, Dr. Fassler says. "They may seem very mature on the surface but can actually be pretty vulnerable underneath." Children can suffer in school because their moms are less likely to motivate them academically or to help them coordinate social plans. Depressed mothers tend to be more critical, and as a result, kids this age often have more negative images of themselves, according to research at UCLA. They're also more likely to have behavioral problems in school, because their moms avoid dealing with discipline at home.