Babies born to mothers with depression are at a high risk of behavioural problems later in life (AFP)

Depression during pregnancy may leave kids with a legacy of developmental problems

Ina Skosana
Mothers battling depression may need help forming the early crucial bonds that will affect children's relationships throughout their lives.

Children born to mothers who experienced depression during pregnancy may be more at risk of mental health disorders. Recent research published in the medical journal The Lancet Psychiatry reveals that babies born to women with depression may also face a range of developmental problems.

Globally, one in five women is affected by depression but researchers from the Imperial College London believe the prevalence of mental disorders common in pregnancy is significantly higher in low- and middle-income countries, especially in rural areas. In South Africa, an estimated one in three pregnant women has depression, according to the study that reviewed available literature on the topic.

"Maternal depression affects the wellbeing of both the mother and her unborn baby. Numerous factors associated with depression such as poor nutrition, the use of substances such as alcohol, nicotine and over the counter drugs, have a negative impact on health of mom and baby," says Elsa du Toit, a Western Cape based psychiatrist who specialises in maternal mental health.

Research from the Imperial College London shows that depression in pregnancy might not only have an impact on the development of an unborn baby, but may also affect the ability of the mother and her child to form a bond.

Difficulty bonding after birth
"Depression in pregnancy is usually an predictor of post-natal depression and can have a significant impact on the relationship between the mother and her baby," says Du Toit. "If a mother has depression, she is hindered to bond with her child on an emotional level.

"The baby’s relationship with their mother is their first relationship and provides a template for the relationships they will form throughout their lives."

According to the World Health Organisation, pregnant women with depression often have poor physical health and are less likely to go for antenatal visits. In resource-poor countries, children born to mothers with depression may be more likely to have low birth weights. These children such as may also face higher rates of malnutrition and diarrhoea as well as behavioural and emotional difficulties.

"It is so important that we treat depression during pregnancy to minimise the harm both to the mother and her baby. But only about 10% of women affected by depression in developing countries are getting the help they need," says Du Toit.

Early intervention
Early interventions are critical in helping children overcome the effects of maternal depression.

"The first three years of a child’s life are crucial – that is when a lot of growth and development takes place so intervention in these years is usually effective. Once a child turns is older, it becomes significantly more difficult to reverse the effects."

Extended family and other caregivers are essential in helping minimise the effect of maternal depression on mothers and babies.

Du Toit says: "There is still a lot of stigma around maternal depression but women should know that it is not their fault. They are not bad parents; they are ill and the condition is treatable."

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