The long-term effects of maternal depression: early childhood physical health as a pathway to offspring depression

J Adolesc Health. 2014 Jan;54(1):88-93. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.07.038. Epub 2013 Sep 20.


Purpose: Cross-sectional and retrospective studies have highlighted the long-term negative effects of maternal depression on offspring physical, social, and emotional development, but longitudinal research is needed to clarify the pathways by which maternal depression during pregnancy and early childhood affects offspring outcomes. The current study tested one developmental pathway by which maternal depression during pregnancy might negatively impact offspring mental health in young adulthood, via poor physical health in early childhood.

Methods: The sample consisted of 815 Australian youth and their mothers who were followed for 20 years. Mothers reported on their own depressive symptoms during pregnancy and offspring early childhood. Youth completed interviews about health-related stress and social functioning at age 20 years, and completed a questionnaire about their own depressive symptoms 2 to 5 years later.

Results: Path analysis indicated that prenatal maternal depressive symptoms predicted worse physical health during early childhood for offspring, and this effect was partially explained by ongoing maternal depression in early childhood. Offspring poor physical health during childhood predicted increased health-related stress and poor social functioning at age 20. Finally, increased health-related stress and poor social functioning predicted increased levels of depressive symptoms later in young adulthood. Maternal depression had a significant total indirect effect on youth depression via early childhood health and its psychosocial consequences.

Conclusions: Poor physical health in early childhood and its effects on young adults' social functioning and levels of health related stress is one important pathway by which maternal depression has long-term consequences for offspring mental health.

Keywords: Child and adolescent health; Community sample; Depression; Social adjustment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Australia
  • Child, Preschool
  • Depression / epidemiology*
  • Depressive Disorder*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Mothers / psychology*
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult