Pregnancy can be a time of great happiness, but for some women it can trigger depression. The “baby blues” are common after childbirth — mood swings, crying spells, anxiety and difficulty sleeping. These can begin within a few days of giving birth and last for a couple weeks.

Also not uncommon is a form of maternal depression known as postpartum depression, which if left untreated can become long-lasting. The exact causes of postpartum depression are not known, but the huge hormonal changes that occur in a woman’s body after giving birth, the exhaustion of new motherhood and the stresses a woman may be facing likely play a role.

If you’re a new mother experiencing depression, your child could also be affected by your mood, according to a University of California, Los Angeles study. Children have a greater chance of developing social, academic, and emotional difficulties during their early life, it found, if their mothers faced increasing levels of depression before their pregnancy until the months following their birth.

It’s always a good idea to seek treatment for maternal depression as soon as possible. The first step is to alert your health care provider who can prescribe medications that are safe to take during pregnancy.

The study is the first to show such a strong connection between a mother’s mood and a child’s emotional, social and academic development. The UCLA researchers tracked moms’ levels of depression and their offspring from before conception until their children were 5-years-old. During this time the team found that the connection between a mother’s mood and her child’s future behavioral issues was significant.

“Our findings suggest that increases in mothers' symptoms of depression from preconception to postpartum contribute to a child’s level of attention and behavioral control, which can raise the risk of problems across the life span,” lead author and UCLA graduate student, Gabrielle Rinne, said in a press statement.

Mothers who suffered from postpartum depression should know that it’s not a done deal that their children will face difficulties. “Parents should know, however, that this can be addressed through early childhood intervention,” Rinne added.

There were two parts to the study. First, the researchers analyzed data on 362 women who participated in the Community Child Health Network study, a collaboration including UCLA, other institutions and community partners, that looked into disparities in maternal and child health among poor and minority families. Most of the mothers were Black or Hispanic and from low-income backgrounds.

Every one of the study’s mothers already had a young child. They were followed through their subsequent pregnancy and interviewed four times about their symptoms of depression which included — once before becoming pregnant, twice during their pregnancy — and another time when the baby was around three months old.

When it came to how many pregnant women were experiencing depression, the breakdown looked like this:

  • Just under 75 percent of the women reported low symptoms that stayed the same over the study period
  • Twelve (12) percent had low symptoms that significantly increased during the study period
  • Seven (7) percent had more intense or high symptoms of depression that persisted

For the second part of the study, the researchers followed 125 of the participants. When their children were four years old or preschool-aged, the mothers were asked to describe their child’s temperament and behavior, specifically their child’s experiences of emotional distress and their ability to regulate their emotions.

It’s not a given that kids of mothers with persistent postpartum depression will experience difficulties, but “they are at a higher risk of socio-emotional and behavioral issues and problems at school.”

When the children turned five-years-old, they were asked to play a game on an iPad that required focused attention. “Higher scores on this task reflect a greater ability to concentrate and inhibit attention to surrounding stimuli,” Rinne explained.

Children of mothers whose depression increased from preconception through postpartum performed significantly worse on the computer game than those kids whose moms had reported much lower symptoms of depression. That said, however, there were no differences in performance between those children whose mothers had reported consistently high depression and those moms who reported consistently low depression.

“This study suggests that a pattern of increasing depression may adversely affect children,” explained senior author, Christine Dunkel Schetter, a distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry at UCLA who had a lead role in the study. She emphasized that it’s not a given that all these kids will experience difficulties but noted that “they are at a higher risk of socio-emotional and behavioral issues and problems at school.”

The women in this study faced economic pressures that may have contributed to their depression, but it’s natural to experience low feelings when you’re pregnant. Up to 15 percent of women experience postpartum depression. But don’t just shrug it off. It’s always a good idea to seek treatment for maternal depression as soon as soon possible.

The first step is to alert your health care provider who can prescribe mood-boosting medications that are safe to take during pregnancy. Some women have found relief from their depression through a yoga practice, meditation, individual therapy or group support, as well as with a safe, daily exercise routine.

The study is published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.