We write often here about the negative effects of postpartum depression on the child.  Most of the studies thus far have focused on behavior and cognitive development; a recent study from researchers at JohnsHopkinsUniversity suggests that being exposed to maternal depression during the first year of life may negatively affect the physical development of the child as well.

The researchers assessed 10,700 children from a nationally representative cohort of children participating in the U.S. Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Birth Cohort.  The children of mothers who were depressed at 9 months postpartum were 40 percent more likely to be at or below the 10th percentile for height at age 4, and 48 percent more likely to be at or below the 10th percentile for height at age 5 than the children of mothers without depression.  There was no statistically significant effect of maternal depressive symptoms on weight.

Exactly how depression in the mother may affects her child’s growth. The authors speculate maternal depressive symptoms may contribute to a pattern of caregiving behaviors that have a prolonged effect on the child growth over time.  Another possibility is that this effect on growth is medicated by stress hormones, such as cortisol, which are secreted at higher levels in the children of mothers who are depressed.  In other models, it has been shown that chronically elevated levels of cortisol are associated with lower growth hormone levels in children, which could result in reduced stature.

Studies assessing the link between maternal depression and child growth have yielded mixed results.  A recent meta-analysis of 17 studies conducted in developing countries showed a positive and significant associations between maternal depressive symptoms and child short stature and underweight (Surkan et al, 2011).  The authors speculate that the association between maternal depression and child growth may differ in developing and developed countries because of differences in social resources, caregiving practices, and the overall prevalence of poor nutrition.

Ruta Nonacs, MD PhD

Surkan PJ, EttingerAK, Ahmed S, et al. Impact of maternal depressive symptoms on growth of preschool- and school-aged children.  Pediatrics 2012;130(4):e847-55.

Surkan PJ, Kennedy CE, Hurley KM, Black MM. Maternal depression and early childhood growth in developing countries: systematic review and meta-analysis. Bull World Health Organ. 2011; 89(8): 608–615.