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Maternal depression, bilingual households affect language development in infants

Heather Rudow February 22, 2012


The first months of a baby’s life are pivotal for language development, and researchers found through two experiments that external factors such as bilingual families and maternal depression can have an impact.

Both of the studies involved researcher Janet Werker, whose previous studies found that between the ages of eight and nine months, babies are constantly soaking up the words they hear and the facial expressions that accompany the talking. It is a key developmental period for language development, she found.

But her latest research revealed that this period actually lasts longer for babies in bilingual households, particularly regarding the facial recognition aspect of speech development.

In the second study, Werker and her colleagues found that maternal depression and its treatment through serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) can also have an effect on “the timing of speech perception development” in babies:

“The team’s preliminary findings suggest that SRI treatment may accelerate babies’ ability to attune to the sounds and sights of the native language, while maternal depression untreated by SRIs may prolong the period of tuning. This study followed three groups of mothers — one being treated for depression with SRIs, one with depression not taking antidepressants and one with no symptoms of depression. By measuring changes in heart rate and eye movement to sounds and video images of native and non-native languages, the researchers calculated the language development of babies at three intervals, including six and 10 months of age. Researchers also studied how the heart rates of unborn babies responded to languages at the age of 36 weeks in the uterus.”

Says co-author Tim Oberlander, “Poor mental health during pregnancy is a major public health issue for mothers and their families. Non-treatment is never an option. While some infants might be at risk, others may benefit from mother’s treatment with an SRI during their pregnancy. We are just not sure at this stage why some but not all infants are affected in the same way. It is really important that pregnant women discuss all treatment options with their physicians or midwives.”

Notes Werker, “At this point, we do not know if accelerating or delaying the achievement of these milestones of early infancy has any consequences on later language acquisition. However, these preliminary findings highlight the importance of environmental factors on infant development and put us in a better position to support not only optimal language development in children but also maternal well-being.”

Werker added that she plans to address these questions in future studies.

Previous studies have found that depression and stress in expectant mothers is linked to childhood asthma. There are also noticeable differences in the way a child’s brain develops when living with a depressed mother.

Source: University of British Columbia

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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