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updated 6/13/2011 8:27:10 AM ET 2011-06-13T12:27:10

Toddlers who have a depressed mom are more likely than other kids to develop behavior problems as they get older, studies show. But a new report finds that the risk of behavior issues, such as being overly aggressive, hyperactive, or withdrawn, can be reduced if toddlers spend just a few hours a day in formal day care.

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The new study followed 438 Australian mothers and their children from infancy untill the kids were 5 years old. Overall, children raised by mothers who reported recurrent bouts of depression were almost four times as likely to exhibit behavior problems, including depression, anxiety, withdrawn behavior and aggression.

But, half a day in day care significantly reduced the risk of these behavior problems developing by age 5, researchers reported in Pediatrics.

What the authors of the study can’t be sure of is why day care had such a beneficial impact.

“There are several ways in which child care may buffer some of the effects of maternal depression on child behavior,” said the study’s lead author Lynne Giles, a researcher at the Intergenerational Health Research Group at the University of Adelaide. “First, some respite from the maternal role for mothers with depression may help the mothers fulfill their parenting duties when they are with their toddler. Second, toddlerhood is a time when social interactions are very important developmentally. Mothers with depression may be less able to engage in social opportunities for their toddlers. So child care may also help fill a socialization role for the toddlers of depressed mothers.”

Dr. C. Neill Epperson understands the value of day care. “A mom needs a mom break — it’s good for everyone’s health,” said Epperson, an associate professor of psychiatry and obstetrics and gynecology and director of the Penn Center for Women’s Behavioral Wellness at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “From a clinical perspective giving mommy a break can be very helpful across the board.”

When it comes to kids with depressed moms, day care may also provide some of the stimulation and support an exhausted mom can’t give.

The idea that day care helps socialize kids with depressed mothers rings true for Dr. Margaret Stuber, the Jane and Marc Nathanson Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Depression can hobble a mom’s ability to give a toddler what she needs to develop into a healthy pre-schooler, Stuber said.

“Toddlers need someone who is able to respond to their emotional outbursts,” Stuber explained. “Someone who can help them understand their feelings and how to regulate them. Someone who is a sturdy base for them and who can be their home base for going out to explore the world.”

Depressed moms can be too overwhelmed to give this to their kids.

But good formal day care can fill that void, Stuber said. “They will have predictable people there that the child can get to know, who will help the child learn what is and is not allowed,” she explained. “The child isn’t going to be loved the same way as with a parent, but there will be someone there who can help with emotion regulation.”

Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney. She is co-author of the forthcoming book, "The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic."

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