Washington: To-be-moms please note: Depression and even mood swings during pregnancy may cause complications for babies, as they can sense their mother`s psychological state while in the womb, a new study has claimed.
Researchers at University of California, Irvine, found that babies did best on tests of mental and motor abilities if their mother`s mood remained consistent before and after she gave birth, even if the mother was in a depressed state.
But if a mother`s mood changed -- from either depressed to healthy, or from healthy to depressed -- babies didn`t fare well in the tests, the researchers found.
The results suggest that infants` brains may somehow detect their mother`s psychological state while in the womb, and this affects their development as their bodies prepare for life after birth, the researchers said.
If an infant in the womb is exposed to a challenging environment, such as his mother`s depression, he may be better able to respond to challenges later on. But if an infant is born into an environment he has not confronted, he may not react as well, said study researcher Curt Sandman, a professor emeritus of psychiatry and human behaviour.
"The foetus is paying an active part in its own development. "It will then thrive in an environment that is like the one it is preparing for," Prof Sandman was quoted as saying by LiveScience.
For their study, to be published in journal Psychological Science, Sandman and colleagues studied 221 women, who were evaluated for depression both before and after pregnancy. The babies periodically underwent tests designed to assess mental and motor development during their first year of life.
At six months, babies who were exposed to congruent conditions before and after birth (their mothers were either depressed or not depressed at both time periods) had significantly higher scores on the tests of mental and motor development than babies who were exposed to incongruent conditions.
At a year, babies exposed to congruent conditions had higher mental development scores, but not motor development scores, than babies in incongruent conditions.
It`s not clear what the effect of incongruent conditions will be over the long term, Sandman said.
A similar phenomenon has been found in the field of nutrition. A 2005 study showed babies who were exposed to near-starving conditions while in the womb, and then provided sufficient nutrition after birth, were at increased risk of metabolic disease.
Pregnant women should be screened for depression so that they can be treated, Sandman said. He emphasised that the new findings do not mean that if mothers are depressed during pregnancy, they should be left alone, Sandman said. .
While there has been increased awareness about postpartum depression, prenatal depression receives less attention, Sandman said.
The researchers aren`t sure how infants "sense" the mother`s psychological state while in the womb, but it could be through hormones, such as stress hormones, released in the mothers` body.