BACKGROUND. The prevalence of maternal depressive symptoms and its associated consequences on parental behaviors, child health, and development are well documented. Researchers have called for additional work to investigate the effects of the timing of maternal depressive symptoms at various stages in the development of the young child on the emergence of developmentally appropriate parenting practices. For clinicians, data are limited about when or how often to screen for maternal depressive symptoms or how to target anticipatory guidance to address parental needs.

PURPOSE. We sought to determine whether concurrent maternal depressive symptoms have a greater effect than earlier depressive symptoms on the emergence of maternal parenting practices at 30 to 33 months in 3 important domains of child safety, development, and discipline.

METHODOLOGY. Secondary analyses from the Healthy Steps National Evaluation were conducted for this study. Data sources included a self-administered enrollment questionnaire and computer-assisted telephone interviews with the mother when the Healthy Steps children were 2 to 4 and 30 to 33 months of age. The 30- to 33-month interview provided information about 4 safety practices (ie, always uses car seat, has electric outlet covers, has safety latches on cabinets, and lowered temperature on the water heater), 6 child development practices (ie, talks daily to child while working, plays daily with child, reads daily to child, limits child television and video watching to <2 hours a day, follows ≥3 daily routines, and being more nurturing), and 3 discipline practices (ie, uses more reasoning, uses more harsh punishment, and ever slapped child on the face or spanked the child with an object). The parenting practices were selected based on evidence of their importance for child health and development, near complete data, and sample variability. The discipline practices were constructed from the Parental Response to Misbehavior Scale. Maternal depressive symptoms were assessed using a 14-item modified version of the Center for Epidemiologic Studies-Depression Scale. Multiple logistic regression models estimated the effect of depressive symptoms on parenting practices, adjusted for baseline demographic characteristics, Healthy Steps participation, and site. No significant interactions were found when testing analytic models with dummy variables for depressive symptoms at 2 to 4 months only, 30 to 33 months only, and at both times; reported models do not include interaction terms. We report main effects of depressive symptoms at 2 to 4 and 30 to 33 months when both are included in the model.

RESULTS. Of 5565 families, 3412 mothers (61%) completed 2- to 4- and 30- to 33-month interviews and provided Center for Epidemiologic Studies-Depression Scale data at both times. Mothers with depressive symptoms at 2 to 4 months had reduced odds of using car seats, lowering the water heater temperature, and playing with the child at 30 to 33 months. Mothers with concurrent depressive symptoms had reduced odds of using electric outlet covers, using safety latches, talking with the child, limiting television or video watching, following daily routines, and being more nurturing. Mothers with concurrent depressive symptoms had increased odds of using harsh punishment and of slapping the child on the face or spanking with an object.

CONCLUSIONS. The study findings suggest that concurrent maternal depressive symptoms have stronger relations than earlier depressive symptoms, with mothers not initiating recommended age-appropriate safety and child development practices and also using harsh discipline practices for toddlers. Our findings, however, also suggest that for parenting practices that are likely to be established early in the life of the child, it may be reasonable that mothers with early depressive symptoms may continue to affect use of those practices by mothers. The results of our study underscore the importance of clinicians screening for maternal depressive symptoms during the toddler period, as well as the early postpartum period, because these symptoms can appear later independent of earlier screening results. Providing periodic depressive symptom screening of the mothers of young patients has the potential to improve clinician capacity to provide timely and tailored anticipatory guidance about important parenting practices, as well as to make appropriate referrals.

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