According to new research released from UBC, babies born to depressed mothers acquire language skills at a slightly different rate than do babies of non-depressed women. Not only that, but the children of women treating their depression with serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SRIs (a common antidepressant) also show unique differences in language acquisition. What does this mean for parents, and for kids? The researchers caution against reading too much into the findings, emphasizing that they are preliminary.

“Poor mental health during pregnancy is a major public health issue for mothers and their families” says study co-author Dr. Tim Oberlander, a professor of developmental pediatrics at UBC. “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.”

UBC’s Janet Werker, a professor of psychology and researcher with the UBC Early Years Development Research Group, has been studying children’s language acquisition for years. Her research has shown that during the first months of life, babies rapidly tune in to the language sounds they hear around them and the sights they see (movements in the face that accompany talking), and start to tune out language sounds in languages that they don’t commonly hear spoken. Her most recent research has pointed to intriguing differences in the length of time that babies take in this developmental stage when their mothers are depressed, and if they are taking antidepressants. Her 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.

But does a speeded up or prolonged period of language recognition affect how well babies ultimately do at acquiring language?  It’s too early to tell, according to 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,” she says, noting that she aims to address such questions in future studies. “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.”


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by Pilar Onatra
Program Coordinator