Amanda Waite worked long and hard to realize her dream of motherhood. It took years of trying as well as dealing with four miscarriages before she finally had her son in her arms.
She’d always believed having a baby to take home would be her happy ending. Instead, it was just the start of a personal nightmare.
“I had trouble getting pregnant, trouble staying pregnant, and a complicated pregnancy and birth,” Waite told Healthline. “Having my son home and safe should have been such a relief, but in reality, I feel like I was robbed of the little joys of his infancy because every day was such a struggle.”
Waite was eventually diagnosed with postpartum depression (PPD) and postpartum anxiety (PPA). These conditions fall under the umbrella of postpartum mood disorders (PPMDs), which affect approximately 10 to 15 percent of women, according to Postpartum Progress.
Waite said she began experiencing symptoms just a week after her son was born. She struggled deeply for a year and really didn’t begin to fully feel like herself until her son was 19 months old.
When talking about PPMDs, we tend to focus on the women who are suffering from these conditions.
But a recent study published in Jama Psychiatry dug a little more deeply into the impacts felt by the babies born to mothers suffering from PPD.
The longitudinal study evaluated 18 years of data on children born in a specific area of southwest England between April 1991 and December 1992. The research itself set out to identify highly vulnerable groups of mothers and children.
The most vulnerable were found to be families where the mothers suffered from moderate to severe postpartum depression.
Researchers found that those mothers were more likely to struggle with depression 11 years later.
In addition, their children were 4 times more likely to have behavioral problems, 2 times more likely to have low math scores, and 7 times more likely to suffer from depression themselves at 18 years of age.
Waites' son, age 6 now, does suffer from some behavioral and emotional struggles. He has diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), as well as severe sensory sensitivities.
“His providers feel strongly that he might have [autism spectrum disorder], but we’re waiting for a proper diagnostic evaluation,” Waites said. “He has anxiety about being alone and still won’t sleep in his own room. He wakes several times a night to check if I’m still there.”
Still, she doesn’t necessarily think her son’s struggles are related to PPD.
“He was too young to remember any of that,” she explained. “All of his difficulties are also heritable, and other environmental factors definitely contributed.”
Are these ailments inherited?
One of the risk factors of PPD is having suffered from depression in the past.
In fact, a 2017 study concluded that the risk of PPD was more than 20 times higher for women who had struggled with depression before.
Waite certainly falls into that category, having had a long history of depression and anxiety.
Is it possible the numbers in the most recent study could be skewed by the fact that many of these mothers may also simply have had a history of mental health struggles that could have been passed down?
The answer may not be that simple.
As the authors of the most recent study point out, “Reducing the symptoms of the parent with depression to remission has been shown to reduce adverse effects on children. These effects have been sustained in the children, up to one year following remission in mothers.”
In other words, even with heritable risk factors, treating a mother’s depression can reduce the risk of future emotional or behavioral problems when children are involved.
Screening and treatments
Healthline reached out to Dr. Michael Yogman, a pediatrician and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, for his view.
“I think this study confirms what a lot of other research has already shown: That early interactions between parents and their children really matter,” he told Healthline.
“Those are the months when babies learn how they will be responded to and begin to establish trust so that they can ultimately regulate their own behavior,” Yogman explained. “We also believe there is a link between those interactions over the first year and long-term brain function and immune function. There is a lot of research out there on how toxic stress can lead to adverse health outcomes for both children and adults.”
“But what’s optimistic about perinatal depression is that it’s very treatable,” he added. “The tragic part of this study is that it was retrospective from many years ago and longitudinal. While the longitudinal nature is a strength, it also means they weren’t able to collect much information on the treatment because many of the study participants likely didn’t have treatment options available to them at the time. Now we know better and we’re starting to do a better job of identifying and treating PPMDs. I suspect if they completed the same study today, there would be very different outcomes.”
Essentially, Yogman believes, early identification and treatment of PPMDs is the key to helping both mothers and their children have the best possible health results.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) agrees, having released guidelines in 2010 for pediatricians to start taking on the role of screening.
“The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has recommended pediatricians screen mothers for PPD during the first year postpartum,” Yogman said. “And now the challenge, which I’ve been working on aggressively, is to get pediatricians to actually follow that recommendation.”
Asking for help
Once PPD is identified, treatment is available, although finding it often requires opening up to healthcare practitioners and asking for help.
That can be difficult, as many women still fear being branded a bad mother for admitting to these struggles.
That’s what Karen Creedon of Ireland wants people to start acknowledging. She struggled with PPD after the births of her children in 2007 and 2010.
As she told Healthline, “PPD is still such a taboo subject. I think it needs to be spoken about more openly, but obviously in a sensitive way. I was already pregnant with my second daughter before I was offered counseling. I had tried medication, but I hated it. And the psychiatrist I was initially seeing unfortunately added to my feeling of inadequacy. But the counseling I eventually received at my local maternity hospital was amazing. That was what helped me to ultimately overcome PPD.”
It’s a subject Yogman also wants people talking about.
“The thing to emphasize is that treating PPD does not require medication,” he said. “We have a pretty effective evidence-based treatment plan where medication is not the first line of defense.”
For women reading these latest study results and worrying about the impact their struggle may have on their children, it is also important to know that your kids are not doomed.
As Yogman pointed out, these results look at cases where treatment, for the most part, was simply not available. And while we still have a long way to go, vast improvements have been made in our understanding of PPD.
“This is not irrevocable. There are treatments available, and ways to improve outcomes for both mothers and children.” Yogman said.
If you are or someone you know is suffering from a PPMD, there is help available for mothers and children. Postpartum Support International is an online resource that can help find answers and figure out next steps.