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Depressed, poor moms react worse to stress

Updated: November 16, 2011 9:17AM

New research measured the physiological stress responses of 153 mothers — about half of them low-income and half middle- to upper-income — and found those facing ongoing stress, such as depression or poverty, were either more harsh and hostile or more insensitive and neglectful toward their toddlers.

Chronic stress was found to disrupt the body’s natural stress response, which is to react and then recover, says Melissa Sturge-Apple, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester in New York who was the lead author of the study, published by the journal Development and Psychopathology.

The researchers used a wireless electrocardiograph monitor to analyze changes in mothers’ heart rhythms as their kids were placed in a mildly distressing situation and then observed the pairs during play. They also asked questions about symptoms of depression.

Mothers with more depressive symptoms showed heart-rate patterns that began higher and rose during their toddlers’ distress. After being reunited, the moms’ heart rates remained elevated, and their actions were more hostile, such as making derogatory comments in an angry tone. Mothers in poverty had heart rates that began lower and rose little during their child’s distress. During play, they were more likely to ignore their kids and not respond when toddlers wanted attention.

“Mothers with higher levels of depressive symptoms were more reactive; the ones in poverty were more likely to be less reactive,” Sturge-Apple says.

Gannett News Service

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