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Mother's depression roils infant's sleep, but dad's depression matters too

May 5, 2009 | 11:09 am

Just in time for Mother's Day, a new study underscores the subtle but powerful ways in which a mother's depression can predispose her child to depression. But the real gift to weary moms is a little respite from the view that "it's always mom's fault" delivered by a second study -- among the first to look at the influence of a father's emotional and behavioral disorder on his child's future mental health.

It turns out, it matters.

Mom first: A new study finds that compared with infants born to women without depression, the newborns of mothers who suffered depression during pregnancy or in the immediate postpartum period had greater difficulty establishing and maintaining sleep patterns that ensure that baby (and probably Mom) got sufficient sleep. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, is in the May issue of the journal Sleep.

At two weeks and 30 weeks after birth, the babies of women who had sought help for depression during pregnancy took longer -- as long as two hours -- to settle down to nighttime sleep, awoke more often in the night, and had more daytime sleep (and thus less nighttime shut-eye) than babies of women without depression.

Dr. Sheila Marcus, a psychiatrist at the University of Michigan Medical School, said it was unclear whether this early pattern of fitful sleep could be evidence of a child's vulnerability to future depression or might be a contributing factor to the development of depression. Either way, future research should focus on whether a program fostering healthy, normal sleep patterns early in the lives of these kids might lower their risk of developing depression later.

This Sunday, for new mothers with and without the blues, Postpartum Progress, the most widely read U.S. blog on matters of perinatal mood disorders, has a unique gift: a Mother's Day Rally for Moms' Mental Health. For a 24-hour period, once an hour on the hour, the blog will be posting a letter to new moms on some aspect of protecting, maintaining and restoring mental health in motherhood, written by some of the Web's top parenting- and mommy-bloggers. (This could be more fun than trying to eat your breakfast in bed while the kids bounce on the mattress.)

In the British medical journal Lancet, Oxford University psychiatrists found that the state of a father's mental health also appears to affect his offspring's prospects of developing mental illness -- especially that of his son. Reviewing existing research on the relationship, the Oxford team, led by Dr. Paul Ramchandani, found that fathers' influence on their children's' mental health had been "underemphasized" in favor of studying maternal contributions to their kids' future heartaches.

But the increased risk a child faces if his father suffers behavioral or emotional difficulties "is similar in magnitude to that due to maternal psychiatric disorders," the article concludes. The research points to a stronger impact of a father's mental health status on his son, and to a greater likelihood that a father's mental illness will boost his son's risk of developing a behavioral disorder -- such as criminality or alcohol abuse -- than an emotional disorder such as depression.

Ramchandani said these findings underscore the need for men to tend to their mental health as they take on larger roles in nurturing their children. Men are less likely than women to seek professional help for mental health issues, and the consequences of that neglect could grow as men's caregiving responsibilities mount.

"In years gone by, if fathers were depressed and distant, it may not have made much of an impact," Ramchandani told the BBC News.

-- Melissa Healy

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