More awareness exists today about postpartum depression than in the past. But now women are becoming aware of another concern — prenatal depression.
A recent study found that a mother's prenatal depression may increase her child's risk of having depression as an adult.
Similarly, postpartum depression can affect children's later risk of depression, but this risk depends on the parents' education levels.
Prenatal depression means a mother experiences severe symptoms of depression while she is pregnant.
Postpartum depression means a woman experiences depression after her baby is born. Fathers can also experience postpartum depression.
This study, led by Rebecca M. Pearson, PhD, of the Centre for Mental Health at the University of Bristol in England, looked at whether teens were more likely to have depression if their mothers were depressed during or after pregnancy.
In this long-term study, the researchers followed 4,566 children from the time their mothers were pregnant with them until the children were 18 years of age.
The mothers filled out assessments regarding depression symptoms when they were between 18 to 32 weeks pregnant and then again 8 weeks and then 8 months after giving birth.
The children's fathers also filled out these depression screening questionnaires when their partners were 18 weeks pregnant and again when their children were 8 months old.
The teens were then assessed for depression when they were 18 years old.
Based on questionnaires the mothers had filled out, the researchers analyzed the relationship between parents' and children's risk of depression, taking into account the different factors that might affect a woman's or her children's risk of depression.
These factors included the mother's age, her social class, the number of children she had, her history of depression before becoming pregnant, whether she smoked during pregnancy, whether and how long she breastfed her child and whether she used child care during the first six months of her child's life.
The researchers found that both mothers' and fathers' depression could affect their children's future risk of depression depending on the timing and education levels.
Children of women who had prenatal depression (depression during their pregnancy) were more likely to be depressed at age 18 than children of women who were not depressed.
Even if these mothers' depression did not continue after giving birth, those children were 1.3 times more likely to have depression at age 18.
Children whose mothers had more severe depression had an increasingly higher risk for depression in young adulthood.
Meanwhile, children of mothers with postpartum depression (depression after pregnancy) were also more likely to be depressed at age 18 — but only if the mothers had a lower education level.
Among mothers who were only in school up to age 16 and had postpartum depression, their children were 1.3 times more likely to have depression at age 18.
Again, children of mothers with more severe depression had an increasingly higher risk for depression later.
However, among mothers who were educated beyond 16 years of age, having postpartum depression had little effect on their children later on.
There was not evidence that children of these more educated mothers were at higher risk for later depression even if their mothers had had postpartum depression.
Therefore, the researchers discovered that a mother's higher education level lessened the possible impact of her postpartum depression on her children's later poor mental health.
However, mothers' education levels did not lessen the possible risks for later depression among children of women who had prenatal depression.
Then the researchers looked at the possible effects of a father's depression on his children's later mental health.
Fathers who were depressed before a baby was born did not appear to have any effect on their children's later depression risk.
However, fathers who were depressed after a child's birth (paternal postpartum depression) had children with similar risks to those whose mothers had postpartum depression.
That is, postpartum depression of fathers increased children's later risk of depression, but a higher level of education lessened that effect.
"The findings suggest that treating maternal depression [prenatally] could prevent [children's] depression during adulthood and that prioritizing less advantaged mothers postnatally may be most effective," the authors wrote.
This study was published October 9 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. The authors reported no conflicts of interest.
The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust, the National Institutes of Health, the United Kingdom Medical Research Council and the University of Bristol.