Linking Prenatal Depression, Antidepressants, and Language Development
A study finds that both untreated depression and the use of antidepressants during pregnancy have unintended effects on a child's language development
Yes, it’s yet another study about the effects of taking antidepressants during pregnancy. But this one, an analysis of language development in babies born to depressed moms and moms taking antidepressants, comes with a twist. Moms with untreated depression, as might be expected, have babies at higher risk for language delays. But moms-to-be who take antidepressants? Their babies could be born with accelerated language skills.
And some say this may not be a good thing.
The study followed three groups of expectant mothers: moms who had no mood disorder, moms with depression who did not take medication, and moms who had depression and took a serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SRI), a common class of depression medications that includes Zoloft, Prozac, and Paxil.
At 36 weeks into pregnancy, babies were “tested” to see how they responded when the researchers played recordings of different consonants and vowels through their mothers’ tummies. Based on prior research, it is believed that babies’ heart rates temporarily go down when they can discriminate between sounds, explains Janet Werker, PhD, one of the study’s authors and a psychologist at the University of British Columbia. Pretty amazing, huh?
Later on, the research team tested how heart rates and eye movements of 6- and 10-month-olds changed while watching videos of someone reading passages from The Little Prince in both French and English. Babies normally show signs of being able to “tune in” to both their native language and a foreign language at 4 to 6 months but lose the ability by 10 months when they stop paying attention to sounds that are not in their native language (Note: this doesn’t apply to kids raised in bilingual homes).
The results? First of all, babies of moms without depression tended to demonstrate normal language development: They discriminated vowels but not consonants in the womb, and, out of the womb, they tuned in to both their native language and a foreign language at 6 months, but not at 10 months.
Babies born to moms with untreated depression were more likely to still focus on both native and foreign languages at 10 months, a potential sign of a language delay.
But when researchers looked at babies born to moms taking antidepressants, babies displayed unusual maturity in their language skills. While in utero, they were more likely to discriminate between vowels and consonants. And by 6 months, they were also more likely to already be tuned in to their native language.
Sounds good, right? So why is this a concern? “Accelerated development may sound better, but our brains go through important developmental periods on a finely-tuned schedule,” writes Jon Bardin in the Los Angeles Times’ Science Now blog, and “one would not want a language period, for example, to occur while the infant is still in the womb.”
Researchers aren’t sure what long term language effects this early development can have in a child’s life, but are planning further study.
“I would be very happy if it doesn’t have any lasting consequences for language acquisition,” says Welker.
The real-mom take on this study? Keep the focus on providing support to depressed moms. According to Amanda Morris from Milford, Massachusetts, “It sounds like researchers don’t really know what to make of these results, but one thing does stand out as perfectly clear—moms who suffer from depression need help in some form so they don’t pass on problems to their babies. This is what really breaks my heart.”
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