New research has found that postnatal depression can impact relationships between mothers and their children into adult life, as well as have a negative impact on relationships between grandmothers and grandchildren.
Led by researchers at the University of Kent in the UK, the study is the first piece of research to document an association between postnatal depression (PND) and lower quality mother-child relationships that extend into a child’s adult years.
Postnatal depression, also called postpartum depression, is defined as a major depressive episode occurring within 12 months of giving birth. Between 11% and 20% of women experience PND, according to the US Centres for Disease Control.
PND is well known to have negative impacts on mothers’ relationships with their children early in life, as well as on children’s development from early infancy into adolescence. For example, PND has been linked with behavioural problems, lower cognitive ability and higher rates of illness in children.
However, little was known about the impact postnatal depression has on the longer-term relationships between mothers and their children, or on intergenerational relationships.
To find out what kinds of impacts PND has on children later in life, researchers surveyed 305 women mostly from the US and UK. The women had an average age of 60 and had given birth to an average of 2.2 children. Children of the women surveyed were between ages eight to 48, with an average age of 29. Many of them also had their own children. By drawing from such a wide data set, researchers were able to examine PND’s impact over a longer time frame than has been previously explored.
Their research found that women who were affected by PND reported lower relationship quality with their children, including adult children. The severity of the depression also had an impact – women with more severe PND symptoms reported lower quality relationships later on.
Furthermore, the data showed that although PND negatively affected relationships with all of their children, it had the biggest impact on the relationship with the child whose birth triggered the depression.
Their findings suggest factors affecting relationships between mothers and their children during infancy can have long-ranging consequences and affect the relationship that develops as a child ages.
The study also demonstrated a link between PND and lower quality of intergenerational relationships. Researchers found that women form a less emotionally close relationship with a grandchild whose parent triggered PND.
The study’s authors say their findings highlight “the need for investment in strategies to prevent PND and its cascade of negative multigenerational effects.”
They hope the study will prompt “on-going development and implementation of preventative measures to combat PND.” Researchers argue this will have benefits for both mother-child relationships and grandmother-grandchild relationships in the future.
The study was published on Tuesday in the open-access journal PeerJ. It was led by Dr Sarah Myers and overseen by Dr Sarah Johns in the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent.