A new mother is naturally drawn toward the baby – holding him/her close, nursing it, singing softly to the bundle of joy and establishing an unspoken relationship. The baby also responds to the gestures by crying and cooing. This helps in fostering a healthy bonding between a mother and her child. But at times, the pressures of being a competent mother and looking after familial responsibilities can make a new mother terrified and depressed, a condition clinically diagnosed as postpartum depression (PPD). As a result, she might feel disoriented and exhausted to shower her love on the child.
As per the American Psychological Association (APA), PPD affects at least one in seven women in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) says that one in nine women suffer from postpartum depressive symptoms. A woman struggling with PPD might feel withdrawn from her child even though her love remains intact. She might feel like crying all the time and would tend to doubt her potential as a responsible and loving mother. This state of depression can have a bearing on the child as well. According to a recent study, published in November 2017, maternal depression is linked to an infant’s cellular deterioration.
Understanding connection between telomeres and cortisol
Our chromosomes are protected by DNAs with a small tip at the end known as telomere. Our genes and age define the length of these telomeres. As a person ages, the length of his or her telomere shortens and that corresponds to a compromised physical state of health, which could be manifested as cardiovascular disorders, cancer, obesity, depression and even death.
The telomeres age more rapidly when a person struggles with psychological stress. Under stress, the body releases a hormone known as cortisol, which affects our emotional reactions, energy, learning and memory. The cells exposed to this cortisol have shorter telomere length and less amount of an enzyme known as telomerase, which maintains the telomere ends. Since the mother’s DNA passes to the child, a depressed mother’s child might suffer from psychological distress (higher cortisol and shorter telomeres) when he/she enters adolescence.
Through their study, the authors set out to determine the effect of increasing maternal depressive symptoms on an infant’s stress levels and subsequent cell health. The researchers recruited 48 mothers with 12-week-old infants. The babies were studied at six and 12 months of age and until they turned 18 months old. They were made to undergo subtle stress tests like still face experiment test in which a mother alternated between playing a very receptive and loving individual to a numb person who gave no reaction to the activities of the infant. The still face expression was bound to create stress in the infants as they are used to getting reactions from their primary caregivers like mothers.
The researchers analyzed the cortisol levels from infants’ saliva samples, and at 18 months again to measure the length of the telomeres. Additionally, the depressive symptoms in mothers were also noted. The researchers found that mothers with worsening depressive symptoms had infants who produced serious stress responses at six months and 12 months. At 18 months, the infants were likely to have shorter telomere length.
Road to recovery
The results from this study signify the importance of maternal mental health, especially in the first few months of infancy. It is indispensable that if a mother struggles with any signs of depression, she must receive timely intervention to alleviate her symptoms as that might have a strong bearing on a child’s future.
The depression treatment center at Sovereign Health of Florida works to relieve mental illnesses, behavioral problems and addictions with the help of therapeutic modalities, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, individual, group and family therapy, neurofeedback, counseling, and other experiential modes of treatment. If you or a family member is in need of assistance, call our 24/7 helpline number to speak with a member of our team. You can chat online with an expert to get more information on our evidence-based treatment for depression.
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