Maternal depression has been linked to an increased risk of certain behavior problems in children, but the new study shows that just over three hours a week of formal child care can help offset these risks. Moms with recurrent depression were more likely to have children with behavioral problems reported at age 5 unless their child spent more than three hours a week in formal child care at age 2, the study showed.
“Our results ... suggest that modest amounts of formal child care in toddlerhood for the children of mothers with recurrent depressive symptoms can have enduring benefits for the emotional and behavioral state of the child around the time they transition to school,” conclude the study authors who were led by Lynne C. Giles, MPH, PhD, of the University of Adelaide in South Australia. The new findings appear in Pediatrics.
In the study, formal child care referred to care received in a day care center or by a paid caregiver such as a nanny. Informal child care, which was defined as care provided outside of the home by a relative or friend, did not have the same protective effect, the study showed.
Of the 438 moms in the new study, 69% showed no signs or symptoms of depression, 20% reported intermittent depressive symptoms, and 11% had recurrent depression symptoms. The new findings did not hold among moms with intermittent depressive symptoms.
The study did have its share of limitations including the fact that the mothers reported on their children’s behavioral issues, and depressed parents may not be able to give such reliable accounts.
Formal Child Care Does Not Have to Be Paid
Still, “these results are compelling because they suggest that just a few hours a week of formal child care can serve as some sort of a mediating factor between maternal depression and child behavior,” says Rahil Briggs, PsyD, a child psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center Montefiore in New York.
Maternal depression can affect language, cognitive, social and emotional development of children and is also linked to depression in the children, she says.
“If a mom is depressed, it is unlikely that she will be chatting up her toddler all day, and infants and toddlers depend on their primary caregiver to regulate them emotionally,” she says.
The fact that moms who were depressed were able to organize formal child care may also speak to their coping skills and social support systems, she says.
Formal child care can also be prohibitively expensive. “Maybe the moms had more fiscal resources and could therefore get services that alleviate the symptoms of depression as well as provide for formal child care,” Briggs says.
That said, “Even informal child care can be regular and consistent rather than a catch-as-catch-can, haphazard system of care,” she says. “If you as the mom knew that every Monday afternoon and every Thursday morning, you have coverage for your child, it may have the similar benefits as formal, paid child care.”
Consistent, quality child care does not necessarily have to be paid, she says.
“Social support matters whether from a partner, a spouse or from a very regular and reliable caregiver to for your children when you need a break,” Briggs says.