Behavioral Problems in Children of Depressed Mothers Can Be Avoided with Child Care


In a commercial for a popular antidepressant medication, the public is warned that “Depression affects everyone.” Depression in parents is associated with negative behavioral, developmental and cognitive outcomes in their children. Maternal depression, in particular, is linked to language development deficits and depression in children. In addition to ensuring the parents receive professional help to overcome depressive symptoms, researchers have found that placing children into a few hours of formal child care per week can help protect young kids from the lingering effects of their parent’s depression.

Regular, Consistent Schedule Can Alleviate Problems for Both Mom and Child

For the study, Lynne C. Giles MPH PhD of the University of Adelaide in South Australia enrolled 438 new mothers. The majority, 69%, showed no signs of symptoms of depression. Of the remaining participants, 20% reported intermittent depressive symptoms and 11% had recurrent depression. The women were evaluated twice during pregnancy, with follow-up four times during the children’s first year, and four more times until the child was 5 years old. Using the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale. The children’s behavior at 2 years old and 3.5 years old was assessed using the Achenbach Child Behavior Checklist.

Read: Screen New Moms for Postpartum Depression, Says AAP

Overall, the children who were raised by mothers who reported recurrent bouts of depression were almost four times as likely to have behavior problems, including depression, anxiety, withdrawn behavior and aggression. However, those who spent at least a half a day in formal child care (ie: day care center or nanny) were less likely to have problems than those who received less than four hours a week with another caregiver.


A greater amount of child care, eight hours or more per week, did not show statistically significantly greater benefits.

Read: Parental Depression Within First Year of Childbirth

“Our results ... suggest that modest amounts of formal child care in toddlerhood for the children of mothers with recurrent depressive symptoms can have enduring benefits for the emotional and behavioral state of the child around the time they transition to school,” concludes Dr. Giles.

Informal care, such as having a relative or friend keep the child for a few hours, did not have the same protective effect. But formal child care can be expensive and not all moms can afford this benefit. Rahil Briggs PsyD, a child psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, suggests that women with informal care can achieve the same benefits by creating a regular and consistent schedule of child care, rather than “catch-as-catch can”.

“If you as the mom knew that every Monday afternoon and every Thursday morning, you have coverage for your child, it may have the similar benefits as formal, paid child care,” says Dr. Briggs. “Social support matters whether from a partner, a spouse or from a very regular and reliable caregiver to for your children when you need a break.”

Journal reference:
Giles L, et al "Maternal depressive symptoms and child care during toddlerhood relate to child behavior at age 5 years" Pediatrics 2011; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2010-3119.