Mother's mental health tied to child's development
By Anne Harding
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Evaluating the emotional health and social connectedness of pregnant women may help determine if their children will need extra help to meet developmental goals later on, Canadian researchers say.
If children get this assistance early, there's a good chance they will do just fine, Dr. Suzanne C. Tough of the University of Calgary in Alberta, the study's lead author, told Reuters Health.
But Tough and her team found that more than half of the three-year-olds in their study who were identified as being at high risk for developmental problems had never been referred for assessment to see if they actually did have speech and language delays.
"We miss these children when our early intervention can be most effective," the researcher continued. Kids with mild to moderate delays who could make "huge strides" without extensive help are actually the most likely to fall through the cracks, she added.
To investigate early risk factors for developmental problems, which can, in turn, increase the likelihood that a child will fail in school and have behavioral issues, Tough and her colleagues looked at 791 mothers who had participated in prenatal care study and their children, who were now pre-school-age. All of the women had uncomplicated pregnancies and deliveries.
While 11 percent of the children were gauged to be at high risk for developmental problems, just 43 percent of these high-risk kids had been assessed. Those who were born preterm were more likely to have been identified as at risk, as were children who had undergone hearing tests and those with vision problems.
Children were more likely to be at high risk for developmental problems if they were male, had ear infections, came from a low-income environment, or had a mother with poor mental health during the prenatal period and after the child was born. Problems typically included depression, a history of abuse and a poor level of contentment.
Fifty-three percent of the kids who met each of these criteria were at high risk. However, when the mother's poor mental health was removed from the equation, the risk fell by 30 percent, to 18 percent.
"The big surprise to me in this data was just how important maternal mental health can be," Tough said.
The women typically didn't have serious psychiatric problems, she added, but were simply in poor mental and emotional health and frequently lacked good connections in their community and to friends and family.
Tough and her team are now evaluating whether a program that brings pregnant women together to help them build social networks will improve children's outcomes.
SOURCE: BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, published online May 6, 2008.