Mother Depression Affects Infant Growth
April 16, 2003 — Forty-six-year-old Joyce Uyeno says she felt like she won the lottery four months ago when, after seven years of trying to conceive, she gave birth to a daughter. She was totally unprepared for the postpartum depression she began experiencing five weeks later, which left her so jittery, weak, and sleep-deprived that at times she could not take care of her baby.
“I went through this whole ordeal of trying to feel better without taking antidepressants,” she tells WebMD. “It took me about a month before I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t do it on my own, and about another month to begin to feel normal after starting on Paxil.”
Roughly one in 10 new moms experience some degree of postpartum depression, but many, like Uyeno, are afraid to take antidepressants because they are breastfeeding. But a new study from UCLA should calm those fears. Researchers found the weight of babies of breastfeeding mothers who were on antidepressants was not affected — unless the mothers were depressed for two months or longer.
UCLA researchers studied 78 breastfeeding mothers and their infants. All of the women were treated with antidepressants started either during pregnancy or in the six months following pregnancy.
The weights of six-month-old, breastfed babies whose mothers suffered from depression for less than two months, and greater than two months, were compared with normal birth-weight infants of non-depressed mothers.
Researchers found the average weight was the same for normal-weight infants and infants of mothers who suffered depression for less than two months.
But those infants whose mothers suffered from depression for more than two months weighed significantly less than the normal-weight babies.
“Women should not hesitate to get treated for postpartum depression, even if it involves the use of antidepressants,” says lead investigator Victoria Hendrick, MD. “Our study showed no evidence that children’s physical development is harmed by exposure to antidepressants through breast milk, whereas there is evidence that children are harmed by exposure to maternal depression.”
The findings are published in the April issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
The researchers suggest depression may cause breastfeeding mothers to underfeed their infants, and they conclude the findings emphasize the importance of screening for depression and treating the disorder in pregnant and postpartum women.
Ob-gyn Diana Dell, MD, who is also trained in psychiatry, says the new study provides more evidence that maternal depression is potentially far more detrimental to babies than antidepressant use. She says this is true for pregnant women as well. Dell is an assistant professor of ob-gyn and psychiatry at North Carolina’s Duke University Medical Center.
“People come to me thinking that the only thing they can do to harm their infant before birth or while breastfeeding is ingest the wrong things,” she tells WebMD. “They don’t realize that when they are depressed they are generating some pretty noxious chemicals on their own. Studies increasingly show that depression during pregnancy is not good for developing babies, and it is well known that maternal depression during the first months of life is detrimental.”
Jane Honikman, who is founding director of Postpartum Support International, says physicians are more aware of the dangers of depression in new mothers, and more willing to prescribe antidepressant medications. Honikman says that although doctors are prescribing the drugs, many depressed moms are still reluctant to take them.
“Women have been told for years that they shouldn’t take anything during pregnancy or while breastfeeding,” Honikman says. “They are afraid to take a Tylenol, so the idea of taking antidepressants scares them to death. But we know that the worst thing for an infant is a depressed mother.”
Uyeno agrees. The Glendale, California new mom says one of her worst fears during her two month-long depression was that she was not bonding with her baby.
“All I wanted to do was breastfeed her and then give her to someone else,” she says. “It was really bad. But everything is so much better now.”