Maternal depression is more common four years after the birth of a first child than at any time in the first 12 months postpartum, according to new research by Murdoch Childrens Research Institute.
The study of over 1500 first time mothers found the number of women suffering from depression is at its peak four years after the birth. It also found that women with one child at four years postpartum report significantly higher levels of depressive symptoms than women with two or more children.
Researchers found almost one in three women reported depressive symptoms at some stage in the first four years after birth. Women who had experienced depression in early pregnancy or during the first 12 months postpartum were more likely to report depression when their first child was four years of age.
However, 40% of women reporting depressive symptoms when their first child was four had not previously reported depressive symptoms.
Women with one child at the four year follow up had a more than two-fold increase in risk of reporting depressive symptoms, compared to women with two or more children.
Associate Professor Stephanie Brown, who leads the study, said this is partly explained by greater levels of social adversity among women with only one child.
Lead author, Dr Hannah Woolhouse said counter to the prevailing view that the perinatal period is a peak time of vulnerability to depression, the prevalence of depression was higher at four years postpartum than any point in the first 12 months after birth.
“This is one of the first large studies to report the prevalence over time of maternal depression in first time mothers from pregnancy to four years postpartum,” Dr Woolhouse said.
“The findings show the extent of depression affecting first time mothers, even up to four years after the birth of their child.”
“The fact that almost one in three first time mothers reported depression on at least one occasion from early pregnancy to four years, coupled with the finding that the prevalence of depressive symptoms was highest at four years, suggests a need to rethink current models for maternal health surveillance and primary care support.”
“There needs to be greater attention given to the emotional wellbeing of women with pre-school age children, and better targeting of resources to women at higher risk of mental health issues.”
Researchers said based on the findings, it is likely that current systems of maternal mental health surveillance will miss over half the women experiencing depression in the early years of parenting.
“The high prevalence of depression amongst mothers of four year olds suggests there may be a need to extend the monitoring of maternal mental health to at least four years postpartum, and provide women with ongoing support extending well beyond the first 12 months postpartum,” said Associate Professor Brown.