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Does mom's depression affect baby's language?
October 8th, 2012
04:00 PM ET

Does mom's depression affect baby's language?

Babies are born ready to learn any language in the world, and they have linguistic super-powers that many adults don't.

For instance at 6 months old, they can distinguish between sounds in different languages that non-bilinguals hear as the same, such as an English "d" and a Hindi "d." They can also tell if someone is English or French without sound based on the mouth shapes of the speaker and rhythms. Only bilinguals retain these abilities throughout life.

Really cool, right? But around 10 months old, babies typically stop being able to make these distinctions. As they get better at perceiving a native language, they are less sensitive to non-native sights and sounds, says Janet Werker, psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Researchers are interested in probing this "critical period" of language development. They want to know what factors affect the window of time after which a baby loses sensitivity to a non-native language.

Werker's new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explores babies' language development in relation to depression and a class of antidepressants called serotonin reuptake inhibitors. This is not a study designed to help researchers recommend for or against antidepressant medications, she says, but rather to explore language development milestones.

Given that as many as 20% of women have a mood disorder during pregnancy, and up to 13% of them take an antidepressant while carrying a child, assessing the impact of the condition and the treatment is important.

There were three groups of participants: 32 babies whose mothers who took antidepressants during pregnancy, 21 babies whose mothers had depression during pregnancy but did not take medication for it, and 32 babies whose mothers did not have depression.

The babies had to perform discrimination tasks involving sounds ("d" in English vs. Hindi) and visual speech (watching people speak different languages without sound).

Researchers found that depression and antidepressants did seem to make a difference in terms of when the babies showed sensitivity to different languages.

The babies in the control group, whose mothers did not have depression, performed as expected: They tended to succeed in language discrimination tasks at 6 months old and failed at 10 months old.

But the infants whose mothers had depression (but were not taking antidepressants) failed at 6 months and succeeded at 10 months. That means their critical period for language sensitivity was delayed.

Interestingly, the infants whose mothers were taking antidepressants failed both times. It appears that they were more "advanced" than both groups, in the sense that the language sensitivity window had already passed.

What's going on here? Researchers aren't sure, and they don't know if it's good or bad. One explanation for delay in the depressed-but-not-medicated group is that those kids weren't being exposed to as much engaging speech because their mothers were depressed.

Alternatively, the brain chemicals from the mother associated with depression could have something to do with it. And the antidepressants could be impacting the child's brain development in the group whose mothers took these medications.

Are there long-lasting consequences of delays, or advancements, in this critical period of language sensitivity? No one knows. More research needs to be done in order to determine the implications of the findings of this study.


soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Joshua

    Need a group who waited until birth to start the meds.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:14 | Report abuse | Reply
    • t3chsupport

      Then a group that breastfeeds, and one that does not.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:27 | Report abuse |
  2. A little flawed logic...

    Quote "Interestingly, the infants whose mothers were taking antidepressants failed both times. It appears that they were more "advanced" than both groups, in the sense that the language sensitivity window had already passed.", but how did they know it has passed, maybe it hasn't happen yet...

    October 9, 2012 at 16:33 | Report abuse | Reply
    • dx2718

      Good point! The depressed-but-unmedicated group failed at 6 months and passed later...so it's possible the window happens after 10 months...a flawed study to be sure, and small sample size too, but ethical concerns with it already the way it is, let alone variations.

      October 10, 2012 at 16:10 | Report abuse |
    • bigPharmaFlawedLogic

      There is NO way they can draw the conclusion that antidepressants SPEEDED up development from this study – what big pharma bs pushing this is – probably caused the kid to miss an important developmental milestone would be my experienced quess. Why wasn't this mentioned in the article – pushing pharma much CNN???

      January 5, 2013 at 08:38 | Report abuse |
  3. Jeff

    13% of pregnant women on antidepressants? Pathetic. Instead of dealing with their emotions, Americans are increasingly turning to a quick fix to "feel good". From antidepressants or painkillers, Americans are always looking for something to cover their true selves. There's something unique to the American culture that leaves people unfulfilled. There are pregnant women who are diagnosed with depression and need medication, but it's nowhere near 13%.

    October 10, 2012 at 11:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Fiona

      This study was conducted in British Columbia, CANADA.

      October 10, 2012 at 12:14 | Report abuse |
    • anon

      I read it as 13% of the 20% of pregnant women who are depressed take antidepressants while pregnant. Much smaller number than 13% of all pregnant women. That means that 87% of the depressed pregnant women are "dealing with their emotions."

      October 11, 2012 at 06:04 | Report abuse |
    • unluckyinhabitant

      I hate when people judge– I have bipolar and take antidepressants (as well as a mood stabilizer). I am fortunate to have a doctor who leads the field in women's mental health in pregnancy. We have talked AT LENGTH about what I should do. Yes 13% sounds high but it may not be JUST depression, there are other mental health issues that people take antidepressants for. There is also another study that language development is directly proportional in relation to how long a mother is depressed (either postpartum or chronic). IIn some cases it's better for the mom to be on antidepressants and curb the depression early so as to avoid greater language development delays.
      Journal excerpt
      http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-7610.1987.tb00679.x/abstract
      http://www.aafp.org/afp/2002/0815/p629.html
      http://psychcentral.com/news/2012/02/20/mothers-depression-can-alter-infants-language-development/35045.html

      October 12, 2012 at 20:19 | Report abuse |
    • Nikki

      Depression is a chemical imbalance. Seems as if you're uneducated about the subject...

      July 30, 2013 at 19:09 | Report abuse |
  4. sheila at cheeky chums

    i think the mum would shout at baby more,be more withdrawn so not taking baby on as much, so baby will not come on in leaps and bounds in the language development milestones due to being unhappy just like mum.from http://cheekychumsonline.co.uk

    October 11, 2012 at 16:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. almanyada egitim

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    November 20, 2012 at 06:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. kirito07

    Please continue to publish about this subject. Generally there is usually a higher need than you may anticipate for this form of information and assistance. Natural remedies to treat depression

    December 25, 2012 at 05:56 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.