Mom’s fatigue influences child’s development, researchers say

East Carolina University researcher Dr. Carmel White has found that chronic fatigue in mothers may lead to poor outcomes in their children.

White is a professor in the Department of Child Development and Family Relations in the College of Human Ecology. With Kathleen King of Seattle Pacific University, she examined how maternal fatigue and depression influenced children’s behavior for healthy mothers and mothers with chronic diseases.

White

The researchers surveyed 57 mothers with multiple sclerosis, 36 mothers with rheumatoid arthritis and 14 well mothers. Both MS and RA have high rates of fatigue and are diagnosed more frequently in women of childbearing age.

White said that a great deal of research exists tying maternal depression to serious problems for the child. “But we know very little about the impact of fatigue,” she said, “which has characteristics similar to depression, such as irritabilty and unresponsiveness.”

White and King studied the relationships between depression, fatigue and negative child outcomes, which they categorized as internalizing problems (children who appear sad, anxious or withdrawn) and externalizing problems (children who are aggressive or act out). They found that fatigue was as important as depression in predicting poor child outcomes.

“Effective parenting means being supportive and sensitive to a child’s needs,” White said. “When mothers are very tired over a period of time, their ability to meet the child’s needs are diminished. This can lead to either internalizing or externalizing problems for the child.”

White said, “There is not enough research on the role of fatigue in parenting, but we suspect it plays a similar role as depression for many mothers and their children.”

Because depression and fatigue are commonly reported by women with MS and RA, the researchers expected that the mothers with these chronic diseases would report greater behavioral problems with their young children. White and King were surprised to find the association between maternal fatigue and poor child outcomes was highest for the well mothers.

“We’re not sure why well mothers who are chronically fatigued reported having more struggles with their young children than did mothers with a chronic illness,” White said, “but we can speculate that well mothers may not get the same level of support from spouses and other family members as chronically ill mothers.

More research on fatigue and parenting is needed, White said, but mothers who experience persistent fatique should look for ways to reduce their fatigue levels. “This would allow for a better outcome for both mothers and their children,” she said.

White and King’s article, “Is Maternal Fatigue Mediating the Relationship Between Maternal Depression and Child Outcomes?” is available online at http://www.springerlink.com/content/0187w0582k481036/.

For additional information, contact Dr. Carmel Parker White at whitec@ecu.edu.

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