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Child Development & Parenting: Early (3-7)

Baby's Heart Rate Reflects Mom's Mental Health

HealthDay News
by -- Robert Preidt
Updated: Sep 22nd 2020

new article illustration

TUESDAY, Sept. 22, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- Babies of mothers with anxiety or depression can have significantly higher heart rates than normal, a new study finds.

And this might put them at risk for long-term problems, researchers say.

Mother-infant interaction plays a crucial role in children's healthy development, but moms with depression, anxiety or postnatal depression may be emotionally distant from their infants, the German researchers said in background notes.

"We found that if a mother was anxious or depressed, their baby had a more sensitive physiological response to stress during the test than did the babies of healthy mothers," said researcher Fabio Blanco-Dormond, of the University of Heidelberg.

In this preliminary study, researchers assessed 50 mothers and their babies. They found that when an anxious or depressed mother withheld affection, her infant's heart rate rose to an average of eight beats a minute more than that of infants of healthy mothers.

"To our knowledge this is one of the first times this physical effect has been seen in 3-month-old infants. This may feed into other physiological stress systems leading to imprinted psychological problems," Blanco-Dormond said in a news release from the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology.

Mothers with anxiety or depression were also more likely to say their babies had a difficult temperament, the investigators found.

However, the research needs to be repeated with a larger sample to make sure the results are consistent, Blanco-Dormond said.

Commenting on the study, Veerle Bergink, director of the women's mental health program at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York City, said, "This work means that it is important to diagnose and treat depressive and anxiety disorders in new mothers, because it has an immediate impact on the stress system of the baby." Bergink was not involved in the study.

"Prior studies showed not only short-term, but also long-term adverse effects of postpartum mood disorders on the children. Most postpartum mood disorders start during, or even before pregnancy, and early diagnosis is therefore important," Bergink added.

Mood disorders -- such as irritability, changing moods and mild depression -- are common during pregnancy and after giving birth, occurring in 10% to 20% of new mothers, the researchers noted.

The study findings were released recently at the virtual annual meeting of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology. They should be considered preliminary until peer-reviewed for publication in a medical journal.

More information

The U.S. Office on Women's Health has more about depression.