MONDAY, June 13 (HealthDay News) -- Young children whose moms suffer from depression are at heightened risk for behavioral troubles, but a new study shows that day care may help ease the risk.
The effect was seen even when kids were placed in day care for as little as three hours a week, the Australian researchers said.
However, the benefit was only seen with formal child care, not informal care such as leaving the child with a relative for the day, according to a study in the July issue of Pediatrics.
"It's good news," said Dr. Pete Richel, chief of pediatrics at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. "Moms have an incredible job to do. Any break from that constant care is very valuable," said Richel, who was not involved in the study.
Maternal depression, which is fairly common among new mothers, has long been recognized as a risk factor for behavioral problems in children up to the age of 5.
In the new study, led by Dr. Lynne Giles of the University of Adelaide, close to 450 mothers were assessed for depression. They also answered questions about their child's health and the number of hours the child spent in day care.
The offspring of mothers who had recurrent depression -- but not occasional depression -- when their children were 2 and 3-1/2 years old did have an increased risk of behavioral problems.
But moms with recurrent depression who took advantage of child care even half a day per week saw the risk of their children's problems reduced.
Quality is probably an issue here, said another expert, Myrna Weissman, professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Columbia University, New York City.
"This study looked at a structured day-care program, so I think it is a question of the quality of the day care," she said. "It's promising that quality care can have such a good impact."
On the other hand, Richel added, "day care for toddlers doesn't have to be preschool and 'We-want-to-be-in-Harvard-when-we're-18.' Children are children, and they need to play and be nurtured. That provides a break for mom to relax, let loose and not be in charge."
The findings are also an argument for repeated screening for depression in new mothers, said the authors, from the University of Adelaide in Adelaide, South Australia.
But the study did have some limitations, other experts pointed out.
It did not, for instance, discuss the issue of the expense of day care, which, said Richel, can be "pretty doggone costly."
It also did not include single mothers, who are the most strapped for resources, Weissman pointed out.
Find out more about maternal depression at the New York State Department of Health.