By Genevra Pittman
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Children of depressed mothers are less likely to have emotional problems if they attend daycare, a new Canadian study suggests.
Researchers have known that depressed women are more likely to have kids who also develop depression and anxiety disorders, and that those problems can extend through the teenage years.
"It's interesting to think of this as a possible type of intervention and a way of supporting mothers in general, but especially mothers who are at risk," said Catherine Herba, from the University of Quebec at Montreal.
The researchers followed close to 1,800 children born in Quebec in 1997-1998 and their mothers through the child's fifth birthday.
Women were regularly surveyed about their depression symptoms and reported on their child's emotional problems and separation anxiety, as well as the type of childcare they used.
About 19 percent of mothers had depression symptoms during the study period. And as previous research has suggested, their children were almost twice as likely to develop emotional problems and separation anxiety before age five, Herba's team wrote in JAMA Psychiatry.
However, being in childcare seemed to mitigate that effect. The association was particularly strong for group-based childcare, as opposed to care provided by a relative or babysitter.
Among children with depressed mothers, attending daycare was tied to a 79 percent reduced risk of developing emotional problems, compared to kids who stayed home with their moms.
Across the study, between nine and 31 percent of preschoolers had emotional problems depending on whether their mothers were depressed and where they received care.
How many hours a week kids spent in childcare did not seem as important as the type of care itself, the researchers found. They said the structured setting of group-based care, having care provided by a trained professional and spending time with children of a similar age may all be benefits to that type of childcare.
"Center-based care can really serve as a buffer for children of depressed mothers," said Catherine Ayoub, who has studied Early Head Start programs at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
"As those mothers are paying some attention to their own depressive symptoms, as they're struggling with depression, the children can be buffered from the effects of depression on their development," Ayoub, who wasn't involved in the new study, told Reuters Health.
Her research has suggested programs that reach out to both children and mothers themselves can be especially beneficial for families over the long run.
Ayoub, also from the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, said women should know that they can still be good mothers if they are depressed, and also that there are many ways to treat depression - so they can get better.
"Yes, you may be depressed, but you also can really move toward resilience," she said. "It's okay to find the best possible care for your child that's also a way to take care of yourself."
Herba said that doctors should be looking for new mothers who are depressed and speak to them about the potential benefits of using childcare and getting help for themselves.
"It's quite important that we give good support to these mothers and try to facilitate this as much as possible," she said.
SOURCE: JAMA Psychiatry, online June 19, 2013.