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Study: Post-Partum Depression May Impact Kids' Height

New research shows that postpartum depression can have a lasting physical–not just psychological–impact on children.

Using data that followed over 6,500 children, researchers found that moms who reported mild, moderate, or severe symptoms of depression at nine months post partum were significantly more likely to have children that were of smaller stature…even at kindergarten age.

The study found that at nine months postpartum, 24 percent of mothers reported mild depression symptoms, and 17 percent reported moderate to severe symptoms.

After adjusting for other factors, the moms who had been depressed had kids who four years later were still smaller than average. At age four, the children were 40 percent more likely to be in the shortest 10 percent of kids their age. At age five, they were 48 percent more likely to be in the shortest 10 percent.

“There’s already very good reasons that mothers who are depressed should seek treatment,” lead author Pamela Surkan said to ABC News. “This is one more additional piece of evidence confirming that this is important.”

The study, conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and published in the journal Pediatrics, doesn’t explain exactly why the kids are shorter, but the researchers are starting to look at that.

In the study, Dr. Surkan theorized that “mothers who are depressed or blue might have a hard time following through with caregiving tasks.”

Another theory is that some of the children themselves may be depressed. University of Wisconsin psychiatry professor Kenneth Roberts, who was not affiliated with the study, told ABC News that depression in kids can affect the endocrine system and could disrupt the growth hormone.

Whatever the cause, pediatricians need to use this information as a tool, said Dr. Andrew Leuchter, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“These children have growth patterns that are different from children whose mothers are not depressed,” Dr. Leuchter said to NBC News, which means doctors need to see a child’s short-for-age stature as a potential warning sign.

“It raises a red flag for us,” Dr. Leuchter said. “And it’s more evidence that depression in the mom can can have negative health effects on the kids. So it really underlines the urgency of treating depression in these mothers so the kids don’t suffer.”

One thing that hasn’t been mentioned in all this is the physical benefit to babies of close contact with parents or caregivers. When my twins were born premature, one of the things we did was called “kangaroo care.” That’s where you put a naked baby (still diapered) against your bare chest. My husband and I spent hours sitting there in the NICU with babies inside our shirts, wires and tubes and monitors sticking out all over the place. It’s been proven that this skin-on-skin contact leads to better weight gain, less incubator time, better breastfeeding outcomes, and shorter hospital stays for pre-term infants. I can’t imagine that snuggling doesn’t have that same impact on full-term babies as well. And I’m just guessing that if you’re clinically depressed, you might end up spending less time holding your infant.

In any case, the most disturbing part of the whole article is the number of women who suffer from postpartum depression. According to the  U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one out of every five mothers in the U.S. has postpartum depression, but this research suggests that number could be much higher.

My hope is that pediatricians and family physicians will use this information as a tool. If they’re noticing a lower height percentile than expected, maybe it could be a starting point for a conversation about how the mom is doing. Moms spend way more time at the pediatrician’s office that at their own doctors’ offices. If we have evidence that postpartum depression (PPD) affects kids physically, maybe pediatricians will feel more comfortable reaching out about PPD.

(Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

Read more from Joslyn at Babble Pets and at her blog, stark. raving. mad. mommy. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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