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Maternal iron deficiency disrupts mother/child interaction


New mothers who are mildly iron deficient -- a common result of childbirth among women who don’t take their vitamins -- are less emotionally available or in tune with their babies, a Penn State study has shown.

Dr. Laura Murray-Kolb, a National Institute of Mental Health post-doctoral fellow in child development at Penn State who led the study says, "Earlier research had shown that anemic women may experience post-partum depression and that women with moderate iron deficiency have a slow down in thinking and memory. Our new results suggest that the effects of mild iron deficiency -- which are easily correctable with supplements -- can disrupt the solid foundation that is established by healthy mother/infant interactions."

The study, which is the first to focus on the effects of maternal iron deficiency on mother/child interactions, will be detailed April 5 at the Experimental Biology conference in San Diego, Calif. The paper is titled, "Maternal Iron Deficiency Impacts Mother-Child Interaction." The authors are Murray-Kolb; Dr. John L. Beard, professor of nutritional sciences; Dr. Rick O. Gilmore, associate professor of psychology; Dr. Douglas Teti, professor of human development and family studies; and Dr. Eva Perez and Dr. Michael Hendricks, physicians in Cape Town, South Africa.

The study was conducted in South Africa with 64 women who were identified as mildly iron deficient after childbirth and 31 who were not iron deficient. At 10 weeks after childbirth, the women and their babies were videotaped interacting. Half of the iron-deficient women were then given iron supplements. After nine months, all of the women, those who received supplements and those who did not, as well as the group of iron sufficient women, were videotaped interacting with their babies again.

Analysis of the tapes showed that the mothering of the women who were iron sufficient and those who received supplements differed from those who were mildly iron deficient on measures of emotional availability.

For example, observed in play interactions, the mildly iron-deficient mothers were less sensitive to their baby’s cues. They also scored lower on giving their babies chances to lead interactions. In addition, the iron-deficient mothers cut in on the baby’s play at inappropriate times more often and appeared bored or distant more frequently than the other mothers.

At nine months, the babies of the three groups of mothers also behaved differently. For example, the babies of the mildly iron-deficient women were less responsive and less involved with their mothers. When moving away from a mildly iron-deficient mother, the baby would depend less on mom for reassurance.

Murray-Kolb says, "New mothers should be aware of their iron status which, we know now, affects the child as well as the mother. Iron deficiency is easy to correct and could be a big part of post-partum problems with mother/child interactions."

The study was supported by the International Life Sciences Institute and the Penn State Children, Youth and Families Consortium.

Barbara Hale | EurekAlert!
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