Baby blues: Fathers postpartum depression affects language development.

By Nestor Lopez-Duran PhD

How does parental depression effect a childs language development?

In the latest issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Dr. James Paulson and colleagues published a large epidemiological study of parental depression 9 and 24 months after the babys birth. They were interested in examining the effect of parental depression on parent-child reading activities and the babys language development. The authors used a large national study of early development, which included 4,109 families with both father and mother living together. The participants completed a depression screening 9 and 24 months after the babys birth, a measure of the babys vocabulary, and a measure of parent-to-child reading behaviors.

Some of the results were not surprising: Nine months after the childs birth 24% of mothers and 20% of fathers reported mild symptoms of depression, and 9% of mothers and 6% of fathers reported at least moderate symptoms of depression. This confirms what other studies have shown, that parental depression is very common, and that it also affects fathers almost as frequently as it affects mothers.

However, there was one surprising finding: while mothers depression reduced the mother-child reading activities, and similarly, fathers depression reduced the father-child reading activities, it was the fathers depression (but not mothers) that significantly affected the childs vocabulary development at 24-months. Why? The authors suggest that even though maternal depression reduced mother-child reading time, the mother stills spends a significant amount of time with the child, so that such reduction is not likely to have a major effect on the childs development. However, the father may spend so little time with the child, that any reduction in father-child reading time may have a noticeable impact on the childs language development.

These findings add to a growing number of studies that highlight the importance of fathers in the childs development. For example, this coming May we are presenting a study at the Association for Psychological Science Annual Convention in San Francisco that indicates that early fathers depression (but not mothers) is associated with dysregulation of the childs stress system (endocrine system) in middle childhood. That is, the kids stress system seems to be more sensitive to the fathers depression than the mothers. Ill talk more about these preliminary findings later this month.

Paulson, J., Keefe, H., Leiferman, J. (2009). Early parental depression and child language development Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50 (3), 254-262 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2008.01973.x