Postnatal Depression Causes Long‑Term, Multi‑Generational Impact

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Mar 5, 2018

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Most women suffer from some form of mild “baby blues” after childbirth, but for those 10-15% of women who suffer from clinical post-partum depression, also known as postnatal depression, the impact on their early relationships with their babies is significant. The impact on mother-child bond can influence how the child develops emotionally, cognitively, and physically. New research, led by Dr Sarah Myers and overseen by Dr Sarah Johns in the School of Anthropology and Conservation, has found that postnatal depression continues to impact mother-child relationships far beyond childhood, and can even have a multi-generational impact.

Published in the journal PeerJ, the paper summarized findings from a survey of 305 women, mainly from the UK and US, with an average age of 60 and who had given birth to an average of 2.2 children. Their children ranged in age from 8 to 48, with an average age of 29; many of them had their own children. This large and varied data set allowed them to assess the impact of postnatal depression over a longer time frame than has previously been studied.

Their data showed that women who had postnatal depression reported lower relationship quality with their offspring, including those children who are now adults, and that the more depressed the mothers had been after giving birth, the worse the relationship was.

While mothers who experienced depression at other times had worse relationships with all of their children (than women who never experienced depression), postnatal depression was found to be specifically detrimental to the relationships between mothers and the child whose birth triggered the depression. This suggests factors that affect mother-child relationships in early infancy can have lifelong consequences for the relationship.

Another unexpected twist to the research was the impact on the grandmother-grandchild relationship: Women who suffered from postnatal depression with a child, and then in later life became a grandmother via that child, formed a less emotionally close relationship with that grandchild, continuing a negative relationship cycle associated with postnatal depression.

In India, where social stigma around depression — particularly in the context of new motherhood — is so strong, it remains difficult for women to receive adequate care for postnatal depression. As a culture, if we truly care about the strength of multi-generational family ties, this paper presents as strong argument as any in favor of granting women access to supportive and non-judgmental postnatal mental health care.

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Written By The Swaddle Team

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