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The chain reaction of postpartum depression on the family: how to break the cycle

Postpartum depression isn’t just a mother’s problem; it can affect the whole family if not treated

SHARE The chain reaction of postpartum depression on the family: how to break the cycle

Michelle Budge, Deseret News

The sing-songy melody of Motherese, characterized by the highs and lows of a lilting staccato rhythm with great emphasis on emotion, makes a baby smile, giggle and wiggle.

It seems the mother’s happiness and contentment are contagious.

It is up for debate among the scientific community whether this Motherese is beneficial to a baby's development. Still, Dr. Gesa Schaadt — a neuropsychologist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany — tends to side with those who say Motherese is beneficial.

Schaadt and her colleagues at the Max Planck Institute conducted a recent study to see how a mother’s negative mood could affect her child’s development. They found that if a mother shows depressed symptoms — such as sadness or a lack of interest — it reflects negatively on the baby’s response to important differences in speech patterns, making their learning slower than normal.

“Children — and specifically infants — need infant-directed speech to get their attention to important aspects of speech and language, so they can develop properly,” Schaadt told Deseret News.

Infant-directed speech doesn’t mean simplified speech, she said, but rather that change in pitch that mothers tend to do. Schaadt thinks that difference in pitch is more prominent when a mother is happy, and on the opposite of the coin, is absent when the mother is unhappy.

After having a baby, postpartum depression, which is marked by extreme sadness, affects about 15% of women, according to Postpartum Support International.

Infant-directed speech is just one example that shows more than just the mother feels the effects of postpartum depression. Its effects can reverberate down to babies, fathers and even other children in the household.

What causes postpartum depression?

Postpartum depression has long since been known to affect mothers from right after having a baby up to even one year after, but it’s possible to feel effects throughout pregnancy too.

The condition directly affects a woman’s hormone levels — especially those of estrogen and progesterone — as they work to even out again after birth. Both hormones are, during pregnancy and throughout birth, at the highest levels they’ve ever been. After birth, they can plummet and wreak all kinds of havoc, according to the Office on Women’s Health in The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Symptoms for the mother

The change in hormones can create intense feelings of sadness, misery, numbness or disconnect or even anger. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that everyone is different so symptoms vary, but common ones are that mothers cry more than usual, withdraw from the family, worry about hurting the baby and feel mothers’ guilt when they take time for themselves.

The American Psychological Association adds the inability to sleep, loss of interest in things they usually enjoy and feelings of anxiousness to the list of symptoms.

All of these symptoms affect how the mother interacts with her loved ones, from baby on.

A ripple effect of pain

Family is more interconnected than people realize, with the father and mother at the center of that unit or system, said Dr. Daniel Singley, a board member of Postpartum Support International, a leading resource for families experiencing difficulty with perinatal illnesses such as depression.

In the case of language development and Motherese, he said the father plays a significant role by speaking to the child because he speaks to them as if they were an adult. Both the singsongy tone of the mother and the new vocabulary taught by the father are instrumental for the baby’s language development.

Systems can also involve chain reactions, meaning that if one family member feels something, it can spread to all members of the family.

When the mother is diagnosed with postpartum depression, Singley said, 50% of fathers demonstrate symptoms, too. Overall, 10% of men will experience postpartum depression, which is similar to a woman’s chances of being diagnosed.

“Too often in a field that is — I think — inaccurately referred to as ‘maternal mental health,’ there’s the realization that this is actually ‘parental mental health,’” said Singley.

Why do dads get postpartum depression?

Even just a few years ago, fathers weren’t diagnosed with postpartum depression. But Postpartum Support International said that has changed.

So if hormone levels in women determine if they have postpartum depression, what changes in men?

Singley said depression is categorized that way if they recently had a baby, but it can manifest with normal symptoms of depression with the addition of situational symptoms, such as not feeling love or attachment to the baby or feeling a sense of loss after having the baby.

“If you have two parents who are vegetative, passive or even actively suicidal, they may not be so focused on the baby and absolutely there are problems for themselves and baby,” said Singley.

What about other children?

Dr. Marian Earls, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician in Greensboro, North Carolina, said the brain has two rapid growth spurts: One during the first year of life and another one later in adolescence, making these two times that are critical for development.

Negative effects of parental postpartum depression on babies during this first rapid growth spurt include not only a delay in language development but also the possibility of developing Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder later in life.

Most information focuses on how postpartum depression affects the newborn, but other children in the family can also be affected.

When adolescents hit rapid brain growth for the second time, they could still suffer consequences such as problems with self-esteem and regulating emotion, according to “Parenting Through Depression” by Child Mind Institute.

At this stage of development, repercussions become more social. Other children can feel that their parents have forgotten them or feel their relationships shifting because of changes in their emotional state caused by depression.

Singley described an instance where a child might feel frightened if their father — as part of a dad’s symptoms of postpartum depression —is grumpier or angrier than before. They might not know how to handle this change of pace and blame themselves.

What resources exist?

Screenings through pregnancy and after birth can serve as valuable support for a family.

The screening process usually takes place at each well-child check-up and asks simple, standardized questions.

“We train that it’s how you ask these questions and the fact that you care and that you want to have a conversation about it,” said Earls, who is a strong advocate of screenings. “On both sides, it takes the stigma [of postpartum depression] away.”

Stigma can stop a lot of people from reaching out for help, she said, but leaving space open to talk about it makes it easier to open up.

Outside of screening, resources such as clinics, psychologists and online sites such as Postpartum Support International offer support groups, counseling and tools in the recovery process.

Because it can be difficult to find the drive to seek help out at the moment, Singley recommends that couples proactively create a list of resources before having a baby, which makes reaching out for help easier. He also recommends something most people forget to do.

“One of the most important points is that as soon as [the couple] is beginning to look into having a baby, [they need] to be really open, honest and transparent about how they’re feeling, what their concerns are, what it’s like for them,” said Singley. “One of the key things is to think about ‘How do we keep ourselves healthy?’”

Since the family is a system, he said, “I always encourage new parents, do not make your life about the child: don’t become a child-centric home,” said Singley. “It’s better and healthier to invite the child into your life and the only way to do that is to have an ongoing focus on the parents keeping their relationship as strong as it can be.”