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Help for mother and child: Study: Treating postpartum depression helps babies’ brains, too

Babies whose mothers struggle with postpartum depression often develop behavior and emotional problems as they grow, but treating the mother’s depression can reverse the changes in babies’ brains, according to a new study from Canada’s McMaster University.

The study, published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, found that short-term, inexpensive cognitive behavioral therapy helps relieve a mother’s symptoms and promotes healthy changes in their babies’ developing nervous and cardiovascular systems.

Previous studies have found that the children of women with postpartum depression have changes in the functioning of their brains that make it more likely they will develop emotional and behavioral problems later in life. Studies have found these babies may have trouble interacting with their mothers and can become withdrawn. As children they may develop behavior problems, learning disabilities, and have higher risk of developing attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

“The brain and central nervous system are adversely affected by being exposed to a mother with postpartum depression,” said Ryan Van Lieshout, senior author of the study, a psychiatrist, and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine.

It had not been known before whether treating the mother’s postpartum depression could reverse these changes.

This shows for the first time that treating moms’ postpartum depression can lead to healthy changes in the physiology of the brains of their infants,” Van Lieshout said. “We can treat moms for a couple of weeks or months. There’s no telling how much this can help. It’s an inexpensive, short-term, widely available treatment.”

Developed about 60 years ago, cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of talking therapy that focuses on identifying and challenging harmful thought patterns. In the study, participants met for nine weeks of group therapy.

“The goal is to teach them how to make their thoughts more balanced,” Van Lieshout said.

While up to 75% of new mothers feel the baby blues, a mild form of postpartum depression, 10% to 15% experience full-blown major depression episodes, Van Lieshout said. They may feel depressed for most of the day, lack energy to do things, or feel guilty and helpless to the point that it affects their ability to function.

Additionally, up to 1 in 3 women will feel increased symptoms of depression but are often unable to access care because they are not seen as sick enough by the system to get treatment, Van Lieshout said.

Struggling with postpartum depression is even more difficult under the constraints of social distancing and isolating at home with small children.

“Postpartum depression can sometimes be difficult to detect because many of its symptoms (fatigue, insomnia, appetite changes) can be normal in the postpartum period,” said Ann L. Dunnewold, a licensed psychologist in Dallas and author of “Life Will Never Be the Same: The Real Mom’s Postpartum Survival Guide.”

Seek help if the feelings of sadness or depression are intense, last most of the day every day, and persist for more than two weeks, Dunnewold said.

“Likewise, if pleasure is taken in few, if any things, or a woman feels overwhelmed and is struggling to function as they feel they should, it can be helpful to consult a professional,” she said. “If they feel that their current state will never end or feel that they may be better off dead or are thinking of suicide, help should be sought.”

“Help is out there. Cognitive behavioral therapy is widely available, as are other effective treatments such as psychotherapy,” Van Lieshout said.

“Getting help will not only help you recover, but can have a positive impact on your infants, other children and even your partner,” Dunnewold said.

Visit Postpartum Support International (postpartum.net) to connect with local resources.

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