Oxytocin and Maternal Depression

10-8-2013 7-31-24 AMThere is lots of interest these days in how maternal depression affects kids, and also in how to prevent those effects.

Recent research has suggested that the hormone oxytocin may play an important role in what happens.

A nice review of this literature appeared in the most recent issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The authors note that the oxytocin system is one way that positive or negative mothering can be passed down from generation to generation.

How active the oxytocin system is in a parent depends on the childhood experiences of that parent. If they did not receive good nurturing then their oxytocin system is likely to be less active when they have children.

The good news, is that this effect is not irreparable.  In fact the oxytocin system can be recovered at any stage in a child’s growth.

This may be the reason that it can make such a big difference to children of depressed mothers whether or not there is another relative (grandparent, aunt, even a childcare provider) who is involved in the child’s life in a meaningful way who is not depressed.

In the same issue, a study looked at evidence that the oxytocin system may be responsible for the fact that children of depressed mothers tend to have more mental health problems themselves.

Apter-Levy and other researchers looked at how oxytocin is dysfunctional in depression and how this may relate to the effects of maternal depression on child outcomes. Mothers of six year old children who were chronically depressed were compared with mothers who had had no depression since childbirth.

60% of the children of depressed mothers had a psychiatric disorder, mostly anxiety and behavior problems, but only 15% of the children of non-depressed mothers had a psychiatric disorder.

The depressed mothers (and the fathers) had lower oxytocin, and the children had lower empathy and social engagement levels (social behaviors that are thought to be related to the oxytocin system).