How does parental depression effect a child’s 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 baby’s birth. They were interested in examining the effect of parental depression on parent-child reading activities and the baby’s 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 baby’s birth, a measure of the baby’s vocabulary, and a measure of parent-to-child reading behaviors.

Some of the results were not surprising: Nine months after the child’s 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 child’s 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 child’s 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 child’s language development.

These findings add to a growing number of studies that highlight the importance of fathers in the child’s 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 father’s depression (but not mothers) is associated with dysregulation of the child’s stress system (endocrine system) in middle childhood. That is, the kids stress system seems to be more sensitive to the father’s depression than the mother’s. I’ll 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

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One Response to Baby blues: Fathers’ postpartum depression affects language development.

  1. Ares Vista says:

    Parents must always be aware of how their behavior affects small children. Dealing with depression, anxiety, and other illnesses in a professional manner will set a good example for kids. Also, parents will learn how to ‘cope’ with the challenges they face, and can pass this knowledge on to their children in the future.

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