Mothers With Depression Take Longer to Respond to Their Children

Summary: Mothers who experience depression take longer to respond to their children during a back-and-forth conversation.

Source: University of Missouri

A recent study at the University of Missouri found mothers who are struggling with depression tend to take longer to respond to their child during back-and-forth dialogue.

The findings provide the basis for further research to determine if the slower response time has any long-term impacts on the children’s language development, vocabulary or academic outcomes.

Nicholas Smith, an assistant professor in the MU School of Health Professions, and his team listened to audio recordings of more than 100 families who were involved in the Early Head Start program, a federal child development program for children whose family’s income is at or below the federal poverty line.

Some of the moms involved were struggling with depression, and Smith’s team documented how much time passed in between responses for a mother and her child during back-and-forth dialogue.

“We found that the time gap in between responses, in general, gets shorter between mother and child as the child ages, and we also found the mom’s timing tended to predict the child’s timing and vice versa,” Smith said.

This shows a mom and baby
The significant new finding was that the moms who were more depressed took longer to respond to their child compared to moms who were less depressed. Image is in the public domain

“Mothers and children are in sync. Children who were slower to respond to their mom often had moms who were slower to respond to the child, and children who were faster to respond to their mom had moms who were faster to respond to the child. The significant new finding was that the moms who were more depressed took longer to respond to their child compared to moms who were less depressed.”

In the longitudinal study, using audio recordings, they compared the response time of back-and-forth dialogue between mothers and their children when the children were 14 months old and 36 months old.

Going forward, Smith plans to further study the dialogue response timing for the same individuals that were recorded in this study when the children were in pre-kindergarten and also when they were in fifth grade to examine how these effects play out later on in the children’s development.

“The overall objective we are hoping to accomplish is to better understand how mother-child interaction works as well as the underlying mechanisms and potential factors at play,” Smith said.

“Once we identify what factors drive successful development outcomes and what factors potentially impair development, we can better identify at-risk children and then tailor potential interventions toward those that can benefit from them the most.”

About this maternal depression research news

Author: Press Office
Source: University of Missouri
Contact: Press Office – University of Missouri
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
Maternal depression and the timing of mother–child dialogue” by Nicholas A. Smith et al. Infant and Child Development


Maternal depression and the timing of mother–child dialogue

Turn-taking in dialogue is an essential part of communication and early language experience. The prevalence of utterances and the timing of responses in dialogue were examined at 14 and 36 months of age in 104 mother–child dyads from the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project (EHSREP). Mothers varied in their level of depression risk (measured with the Center for Epidemiological Studies-Depression scale; CES-D).

Although maternal utterance rate did not vary significantly across any factors, the latency of mothers’ responses to their children decreased with development (12 ms/month) and was significantly related to that of their own children (i.e., slow-responding children had slow-responding mothers).

Mothers with higher levels of depressive symptoms were 11% slower in responding to their children than mothers with low depression risk, suggesting that the interactive timing of speech to children may be particularly sensitive to maternal depression, modifying the contingent properties of children’s early language experience.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.