Being sensitive may help moms combat the impacts of maternal depression on their baby, a new study found.

How mothers respond to stress during pregnancy may be passed on to their child via the placenta. The results are definitely unfavorable and no one would ever want their babies to suffer from such effects.

Babies with depressed mothers may have low birth weight, which indicates poor nutrition. Maternal depression may also affect how babies' brains develop. Lastly, babies with depressed mothers may be more at risk of certain medical conditions.

Mothers can tame these effects by being more sensitive as they raise their child. This means being able to perceive and know what their child's behavior means and responding to this behavior in a timely manner.

The Play Test

The experiment involved 128 infants of women who self-reported that they have depressive signs and symptoms. The infant-mother pairs were asked to have three play episodes, but with varying types of interactions.

The first play episode involved ordinary play and required the mother to interact the way she usually does with her child. In the second play episode, the mothers were instructed to stay unresponsive to their child. Lastly, the researchers asked the mothers to resume interaction with their babies.

The authors looked at four things to determine maternal sensitivity. The first one is the mother's ability and willingness to follow what her child wants. The second is the level to which a mother demanded her baby to act in a particular manner. The third is her knowledge of her baby's actions and her response, regardless if it is appropriate or not. Lastly, the researchers looked at the ability of the mothers to touch the infants gently.

Measuring The Babies' Responses To Different Plays

The authors looked at two main laboratory values to come up with their study findings. The first one is cortisol, which is released when a person is stressed. The second factor is the degree to which cells use a DNA-modification process that reduces gene activity, which later exposes infants to increased cortisol.

The researchers recorded the infant's cortisol levels during the second and third play episodes. They also obtained DNA samples via cheek swab after the second play.

Sensitivity Wins Over Stress

When the samples were run in the laboratory, the researchers discovered that showing sensitivity to babies despite being stressed, combats the negative impacts of maternal depression.

Infants, whose mothers were less sensitive and more depressive, had higher levels of cortisol and DNA changes.

Meanwhile, mothers with depressive symptoms but showed high sensitivity and more appropriate touch during play had infants with less DNA change.

Sensitivity Buffers

Babies are not aware whether their carer is depressed or not. What they are after is how they are being treated.

The results of the study, published in the journal Child Development, show that having a sensitive carer may buffer babies from the exposure of maternal depressive manifestations.

"Many mothers struggle with depression, but interact quite sensitively with their infants," says study lead author Elisabeth Conradt from the University of Utah. This interaction may be switching on genes that enable babies to manage stress, she adds.

Mothers can help increase their sensitivity toward their babies. One tip is to learn how to read their baby's wants. For example, a baby may cry non-stop every time a particular song is played. This may signal that the baby does not like the song, and mothers can take their cue and be sure not to play that song again.

Now, the authors are replicating their findings in first-time pregnant women to determine if parenting can buffer babies from the impacts of prenatal exposure to depression and stress. This may one day create an effective measure to help women manage postpartum depression.

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski | Flickr

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