September 23, 2012

The Surprising Reason Why Some Kids Are Shorter

Depression doesn't just hurt--it stunts growth, according to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics.

Mothers who suffer from depression the first year of their child's life are more likely to have shorter kids, based on findings by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Pamela Surkin, an associate professor at the university, led a team of researchers in analyzing data of over 6,000 mothers and babies through the course of four years. They discovered moms with moderate to severe depression nine months after their children were born, were 50 percent more likely to have shorter kids by the time they turned five.

Surkin believes the side effects of postpartum depression are at the root of her results.
"We hypothesize that the main link between maternal postpartum symptoms of depression and child height is through care-giving behaviors, perhaps by means of feeding practices or through these mothers' reduced abilities to get help for their sick children when they are sick," Pamela J. Surkan, the study's lead researcher and an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells Yahoo! Shine. International studies over the past decade have shown moms with PPD have difficulty picking up cues and bonding with their young children, which can make it harder to catch when something is physically wrong with a child.

Also compromised are "feeding practices, most especially breastfeeding, sleep routines and well-child visits and vaccinations," according a 2010 University of Miami Medical School review of PPD's effects on kids. Because malnutrition is a major factor in stunted growth, those missed moments of care-giving could have long-term repercussions on a child's physical development.

Surken and her team looked at data of 6,550 moms and kids. Nine months after having a child, 17 percent of mothers reported moderate to severe symptoms of depression. A little over four years later, nearly 50 percent their children were at or below the 10th percentile in height for their age group.
What's the big deal about being short? "We know from other research that child height is an important health indicator related to later morbidity and mortality as well as educational outcomes," Surken tells Shine.

If your parents are small, she says, that's probably a genetic outcome and not a sign of poor health. "But if the reason you're in the 10th percentile is because you lacked nutrition or because you had a number of illnesses over the course of your early childhood that weren't treated properly, that is a problem," Surkan explained to HealthDay News.
An estimated 1 out of 5 women will suffer from PPD, but as many as 85 percent suffer in silence because of the stigma surrounding the illness or a general lack of awareness of the condition.

Mild symptoms like anxiety, feelings of inadequacy and insomnia are hard to separate from the overwhelming situation at hand--new motherhood. But more serious depressive symptoms like loss of appetite, inability to do everyday tasks and a blunted emotional bond with your child, can be a sign of a mental and physical imbalances associated with PPD. Left untreated, the effects can be devastating.
Past research has linked PPD in moms to cognitive impairment and physical health problems in their children. But treatment—through medication, hormone therapy or counseling—can make a difference.
Surken's own research suggests as much. About 24 percent of moms she studied reported only mild symptoms of depression (often called "baby blues") at the nine month mark of motherhood. Their kids showed the same disparity in height at age four. But by five, they had largely caught up with their peers, indicating that mom's restored mood, or at least her milder symptoms early on, are less damaging. It's also an indicator of the impact a parent's mood can can have on the health of her child—for better or worse.


  1. I think the link may be found in a common cause of depression: undiagnosed, untreated or undertreated hypothyroidism in the mother. insufficient thyroid hormone causes a stunting of growth in children.

  2. I'm not sure this is accurate. I have a female cousin who is 5ft 10inches tall. Her mother(my aunt) became very depressed during her pregnancy with her. My cousin is also taller than both of her older siblings. My aunt suffered for years with depression and was even over medicated by psychiatrists. My cousin of course also suffered PPD after the birth of her second child. The child is still quite young, so we'll see if this is an accurate diagnosis. Very interesting read however.