News Editor: Renato M.E. Sabbatini, PhD

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Mom's Depression May Affect Infants' Learning

"Baby talk" helps foster young infants' learning, but when a mother suffers from depression, this form of stimulation may be muted enough to affect her baby's development, the results of a small study suggest.

Researchers found that while the 4-month-old infants of women without depression associated the sound of their mother's voice with an image of a smiling female face, the infants of depressed mothers did not.

These babies did, however, respond to the speaking patterns of the unfamiliar, but non-depressed, women, according to findings published in the May issue of the journal Psychological Science.

So while these infants showed normal learning ability, the lower level of stimulation they may receive from a caregiver who suffers from depression could nonetheless hinder their learning, the study authors note.

This could help explain evidence that young children with depressed mothers may lag behind in school readiness, speculate Peter S. Kaplan of the University of Colorado at Denver and colleagues.

According to Kaplan's team, the vocal stimulation of baby talk is an important teaching tool. Parents normally use it, along with other types of stimulation, to focus infants' attention or to simply make them happy, the researchers point out.

But in earlier work, the investigators had found that, compared with mothers without depression, those with the disorder spoke to their babies in flatter tones. The new findings, they write, "represent the first demonstration of how a specific infant-learning process can be affected by maternal depression."

However, the authors add, the study results also suggest that exposure to a caregiver without depression "may ameliorate" such potential learning deficits.

An estimated 10% of mothers suffer clinical depression shortly after giving birth, according to Kaplan and his colleagues.

Psychological Science 2002;13:268-271.

Copyright 2002 State University of Campinas, Brazil
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