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NBC News
updated 9/10/2012 8:57:02 AM ET 2012-09-10T12:57:02

Moms suffering the blues in the months after giving birth may be more likely to end up with kids who are shorter than their peers, a new study shows.

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Researchers who followed more than 6,000 mothers and babies found that when moms reported moderate to severe symptoms of depression in the nine months following delivery, their children were more likely to be shorter than others as kindergarteners, according to the report published in the journal Pediatrics.

In fact, 5-year-olds with moms who’d suffered symptoms of postpartum depression were almost 50 percent more likely than their peers to be in the shortest 10 percent of kids that age.

The new research doesn’t explain how kids with depressed moms end up shorter. That’s something the researchers are looking into right now, said the study’s lead author Pamela J. Surkan, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Surkan suspects, however, that depression might get in the way of nurturing.

“We think that mothers who are depressed or blue might have a hard time following through with caregiving tasks,” Surkan said.

“We know that children of depressed mothers often suffer from poor attachment and the depression seems to have effects on other developmental outcomes. It makes sense that mothers who have depressive symptoms might have reduced ability to take care of infants, that they might not always pick up cues from their kids.”

That makes a lot of sense to Dr. Andrew Leuchter, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"We’ve known for some time that maternal depression is bad for kids,” Leuchter said.

Depressed moms don’t interact as often with their kids and they may neglect basic needs ranging from food and clothing to emotional availability, Leuchter said.

The study’s findings may give doctors a new tool that could help spot problems in the making, Leuchter said.

“I think what the study does is it quantifies this in a new and potentially important way, “Leuchter said.  “These children have growth patterns that are different from children whose mothers are not depressed.”

And that means that doctors might want to use being short for age as a potential warning sign.

“It raises a red flag for us,” Leuchter said. “And it’s more evidence that depression in the mom can have negative health effects on the kids. So it really underlines the urgency of treating depression in these mothers so the kids don’t suffer.”

For the new study, Surkan and her colleagues scrutinized data from 6,550 moms and kids collected as part of the nationally representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Birth Cohort conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics.

When the children were 9 months old, the moms were surveyed about their moods. A full 24 percent of mothers reported mild depressive symptoms, while 17 percent said they were suffering moderate to severe symptoms.

By the time they were 4, kids with mildly depressed mothers seemed to be suffering some loss of stature, which disappeared by the time these children reached age 5.

But among children whose mothers reported moderate or severe symptoms of depression, the odds of being short for age had grown larger, from 40 percent at age 4 to almost 50 percent at age 5.

Surkan and her colleagues have data on depression only from nine months after moms gave birth, so they don’t know whether the women continued to suffer from the problem. It will take more research to see if the blues linger -- and whether they have lasting impact on children’s growth.

“Having symptoms of depression for a lot of people is a fairly chronic state,” Surkan said.

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