How Depressing: It's a Boy
Depression is one of the most common postpartum medical problems that new moms face. New research suggests that the risk is even higher for those who give birth to boys.
Most moms will readily admit that rambunctious little boys are a bit more challenging to parent than little girls, who are generally quieter and less physically active. But the impacts of gender on parenting don’t necessarily start once the little ones start toddling.
New research out of France found that women who gave birth to boys were significantly more likely to suffer from severe postpartum depression than women who gave birth to girls. The findings weren't limited to severe depression: Women who gave birth to boys were also much more likely to report a lower quality of life than women who gave birth to girls.
This study, published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing, is the first to examine the impact of infant gender on postpartum depression for women in a Western country. Previous studies in China, Turkey, and India, found that rates of postpartum depression were higher among women who had given birth to girls. Researchers suspect the findings reflect the strong cultural preference for boys over girls in these countries.
But not everyone is convinced that the study really sheds new light on postpartum depression, which is estimated to afflict roughly 10% of new mothers in the United States. For starters, the research was conducted only on French women, whose social and cultural reality may be significantly different from that of women in the United States.
More importantly, it’s possible that the findings are just a statistical quirk since the study was conducted on a very small group of women.
“We’re talking about a very tiny sample size,” says Dr. Gail Robinson, a psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “There were only 17 mothers with severe depression and 13 had boys. A study with such small numbers doesn’t prove anything.”
Why Mothers of Boys Might Be More Depressed
The French research team didn't set out to determine why women giving birth to boys might be more likely to suffer from postpartum depression. In fact, when they started the study, there was no reason to believe that the baby’s gender would influence maternal depression, since there’s no cultural bias in France for babies of one gender over the other.
Once they noticed a trend, however, the researchers did speculate about why mothers of infant boys might be more depressed.
Are infant boys more difficult to care for than girls?
Lead researcher Claude de Tychey, professor of clinical psychology at Universite Nancy, cites studies showing that infant boys are “more irritable and more difficult to soothe” than infant girls.
Robinson agrees with this assessment. "At birth, girls are more neurologically developed than boys,” she says. “This can make it trickier to care for an infant boy—they're not as settled and are more likely to keep you up at night."
Do women prefer daughters to sons?
No one asked these women what gender of baby they had hoped for, information that would have been useful in teasing out the reasons for the study’s findings, as well as perhaps more clearly identifying who’s at risk.
Nonetheless, de Tychey speculates that women (at least in France) may prefer daughters to sons.
One of his theories: the growing narcissism of the modern world is leading new moms to desire mini-me’s (that is, girls) instead of boys. Therefore, when a woman doesn’t get the gender of child she desired, she is more likely to suffer from decreased quality of life or severe depression.
De Tychey’s psychoanalysis may strike Americans as a bit far-fetched. But you don't need to buy into the psychology of narcissism to suspect that women in Western countries (especially American women) may actually have a preference for girls. Take overseas adoptions by Americans, a process that’s typically driven by women. Overwhelmingly, adoption agencies report that adoptive parents declare a preference for a female child.
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