Can your baby feel your emotions during pregnancy?
A study published in the journal Psychological Science makes the case that fetuses do respond to their mothers’ emotions—and that the effect continues after the child is born.
In a sense, it’s not surprising research. For years, scientists have understood that when people feel intense emotions, their bodies react by releasing chemical signals. Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone,” is one such example. It stands to reason that these chemicals could influence a fetus in the womb.
However, the extent of the effect is mostly unknown. The new study, led by Curt A. Sandman and colleagues at the University of California-Irvine, evaluated mothers for depression, then studied the development of their children.
They found that babies developed normally when conditions were consistent before and after birth. In other words, if a mother wasn’t depressed and remained that way after giving birth, her baby typically developed normally. And the reverse was true for mothers who showed signs of depression both before and after giving birth.
In contrast, if a mother’s mental state changed after birth, the baby’s development progress was more likely to slow. As the study only looked at children for a short period after birth, it did not determine the extent of the effect.
“We must admit, the strength of this finding surprised us,” said Sandman.
He also noted that in the long term, babies with depressed mothers were more likely to show signs of psychological disorders, including depression, and their brain structures could actually be affected by their parent’s illness.
As such, the clear implication is that depressed mothers should seek help for their condition—even though, from a very basic interpretation, getting such help may have some sort of detrimental effect on the baby’s early development.
That conclusion is backed up by other research. Another study also published in Psychological Science followed 319 mothers and their children over a two-year period and showed that parental competence deteriorates as symptoms of depression increase.
According to lead researcher Theodore Dix of the University of Texas at Austin, this is somewhat unsurprising given the rigorous requirements of parenthood even in the best of circumstances.
“Children can often be demanding, needy, unpredictable, uncooperative, and highly active,” said Dix. “The task of parenting, particularly with children who are emotionally reactive, is especially difficult for mothers experiencing symptoms of depression because they are continually attempting to regulate their distress and discomfort.”
In other words, depressed parents must focus on treating the symptoms of their depression—often neglecting the underlying causes of the condition—instead of raising their kids.
“Attempting to minimize immediate distress or discomfort may sometimes prompt mothers to avoid conflict with their children, leading to unresponsive and lax parenting,” said Dix. “At other times, it may lead them to accelerate that conflict to address their child’s aversive behavior, leading to over-reactive parenting.”
When parents are depressed, children respond—both before and after birth. This is why mental health treatment is essential for mothers, especially when symptoms of psychological disorders are present.