The children of mothers who suffer depression while they are pregnant are more likely to experience the condition as teenagers, a UK study suggests.
Researchers examined 4,500 parents and their children to look for signs of depression during and after pregnancy and by the time the offspring reached the age of 18.
They found a strong link between depression in pregnant women and an increased chance of their children suffering the mental health problem.
The experts, writing in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, said depression in late adolescence was a public health issue and identifying risk factors for the condition would be important to help prevention and efforts to help young people.
Rebecca Pearson and colleagues at the University of Bristol examined possible links between prenatal and postnatal depression in women.
The risk of depression in children increased by 1.28 times for every rise in their mother’s depression “score” while she was pregnant, regardless of whether she suffered with the condition after giving birth.
The researchers found a link between postnatal depression and risk of depression in children, but only in women from a less educated background. Their children were 1.26 times more likely to have depression for each increase in postnatal depression scores, but for more educated mothers there was little association.
There was also no link between depression in fathers before the baby was born and later depression in the child.
The researchers said: “The findings have important implications for the nature and timing of interventions aimed at preventing depression in the offspring of depressed mothers. In particular, the findings suggest that treating depression in pregnancy, irrespective of background, may be most effective.”
Experts said the findings were important in the search for ways of reducing rates of depression in young people.
Professor Celso Arango, president-elect of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, said: “The really significant point is that the state of the father antenatally did not affect the outcome of the child, ie there may be an effect of the [hormone] cortisol from the stressed mother on the development of the child in the uterus.
“Women with depression would ideally be treated before getting pregnant, but if they are already pregnant when diagnosed with depression, it is even more important that they are treated as it will impact on the mother and child.
“Fortunately our most up-to-date findings from studies on animal models and humans suggest that the benefit of treating with fluoxetine (Prozac) far outweighs any potential risks.”
Professor Carmine Pariante, professor of biological psychiatry at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, said the study confirmed that the pregnancy period was essential in establishing the future health of the offspring, as their own research had also shown.