A just-released Israeli study shows that children born to women with chronic postpartum depression are more likely to develop mental health problems themselves in early childhood. The study also suggests that oxytocin–that wonder hormone involved in labor contractions, breastfeeding, and heightened feelings of trust and generosity, among many other functions–plays a key role in this process.
Dr. Ruth Feldman and colleagues from Bar-llan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, found that 60% of children born to mothers who suffered from postpartum depression (PPD) for at least a year exhibited mental disorders by age 6–mainly anxiety and behavior disorders–compared with 15% of children whose mothers did not have PPD.
“The exposed children also demonstrated lower social engagement with their mothers, lower playfulness and creativity, and diminished social involvement, compared with non-exposed children, and also were less verbal and expressed less empathy to the pain, suffering, and embarrassment of strangers.”
Interestingly, there seems to be a definite genetic component. Those mothers who have a genetic defect in their ability to secrete oxytocin were more likely to have severe PPD, and children who inherited that defect were much more likely to have severe mental health problems at age 6.
The encouraging part to all this is that a nose spray version of oxytocin has been shown to improve the mood and social interactions of affected infants, as well as their fathers, who often have decreased oxytocin levels themselves, probably as a response to maternal depression.
While ‘silver bullet’ treatments rarely turn out to be as successful as originally hoped, adding oxytocin therapy to an integrated treatment plan for PPD is an exciting subject for future research.