Study provides new insight into the link between maternal depression and childhood obesity

New research sheds light on how maternal depression can contribute to unhealthy child weight. The study, published in the journal Appetite, indicates that depression in mothers can be linked to both higher and lower child weight depending on circumstances.

“My previous work with parents who were at risk for child maltreatment showed the many negative effects of maternal depression on a child’s social and emotional development,” said study author Karen McCurdy, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Rhode Island.

“As my team and I began focusing on precursors to child obesity, we noticed many studies did not consider maternal depression as a potential factor. This omission led to our interest in exploring whether maternal depression influenced the family environment in ways that would contribute to children being overweight with a large, longitudinal dataset.”

The researchers examined data from 1,130 mothers and their children who participated in the Infant Feeding Practices Study II. The longitudinal study surveyed women from late pregnancy through their infant’s first year of life. A follow-up conducted 6 years later collected information on the child’s diet and medical history.

“We found that early maternal depressive symptoms (two months postpartum) predicted child weight at age six, primarily through its associations with specific aspects of the family environment. For example, mothers with early depressive symptoms were more likely to have depressive symptoms six years later,” McCurdy told PsyPost.

“In turn, depressive symptoms were associated with parental perceptions that the child would eat too much if allowed to, and with fewer hours of weeknight sleep by the child. Both of these behaviors directly predicted heavier child weight at age six.”

“We also identified two factors associated with lower child weight at age six. First, pressuring a child to eat enough actually correlated with reduced child weight, though it was not associated with maternal depression. Finally, early maternal depressive symptoms also had a direct pathway to child weight. Though a small effect, greater early depressive symptoms correlated with lower weight when the child was six,” McCurdy explained.

The study — like all research — includes some caveats.

“Although these findings suggest that maternal depression warrants greater attention in efforts to understand and address child obesity, some limitations to the study need to be kept in mind. Because measures of parenting practices, child eating behaviors, and child weight were all collected when the child was six, we cannot rule out that the child’s weight influenced these aspects of the family environment,” McCurdy said.

“In addition, there was a six year gap between the measurement of early and later maternal depressive symptoms. To better understand the complex associations between maternal depression and child weight, studies that include frequent and repeated assessments of maternal depression and the family environment are needed.”

“Maternal depression is a widespread yet treatable condition. Early and repeated maternal mental health assessment, with referral to treatment options when needed, may be a necessary step increase the effectiveness of child obesity prevention programs,” McCurdy added.

The study, “Pathways between maternal depression, the family environment, and child BMI z scores“, was authored by Karen McCurdy, Alison Tovar, Jill L. Kaar, and Maya Vadiveloo.