Active Grandparents Can Have A Surprising Impact On Parents' Use Of Antidepressants

When my youngest child was a toddler, I remember learning that a colleague, who also had a small child, was training for a marathon.

“But... how?” I wondered.

Between full-time work and parenting, just getting dinner on the table in those days required Herculean effort. The idea of adding regular exercise to my schedule felt as distant as another planet.

I eventually found out that my colleague had a secret weapon: A live-in grandmother, available to provide childcare at a moment’s notice.

The impact of grandparents’ support

The support of a grandparent can make a huge difference to a mother’s well-being, even when they’re not living under the same roof. In a study published this year of over 400,000 Finnish mothers of children 12 and under, researchers found that when grandparents were available, mothers were less likely to fill prescriptions for antidepressants.

We found that these mothers are less likely to purchase antidepressants if their own parents are younger than 70, employed and do not have severe health problems,” Niina Metsä-Simola, a professor at the University of Helsinki and a lead researcher on the study, told HuffPost. Women whose own parents were still living together, or who lived in proximity to any of their children’s grandparents, were also less likely to use antidepressants.

Of course, not everyone who has depression seeks treatment, and not everyone with a diagnosis of depression takes medication for it. Numbers of prescriptions are just one way to estimate the prevalence of depression in a population.

Maternal grandparents were more likely to have a positive impact than paternal ones. This was not a surprise to researchers, Metsä-Simola said. “It is well-known from previous studies that maternal grandparents, particularly the maternal grandmother, provide more support and are more involved in the lives of their grandchildren as compared to paternal grandparents.”

Another study published this year, for example, found that maternal grandmothers invested in their grandchildren’s lives can protect them from the negative impact of experiencing multiple traumatic events.

Metsä-Simola and her co-authors found that grandparents seemed to have even more of an impact on mothers who were separating from their partners. “Differences in maternal depression by grandparental characteristics were larger among separating than non-separating mothers, particularly during the years before separation,” Metsä-Simola said.

The study didn’t track what kinds of assistance, specifically, that the mothers were receiving from grandparents, but grandparents often provide childcare or financial support.

Several factors affect the likelihood that grandparents are able to help: age, employment and health status. “Our findings suggest that grandparental characteristics associated with increased potential for providing support and decreased need of receiving support predict a lower likelihood of maternal depression, particularly among mothers about to separate,” Metsä-Simola said.

Finland, where the study took place, offers significantly more support to parents than the U.S. Kela, the Finnish social insurance institution, provides new parents with 320 days of paid parental leave to divide between them. In addition, families all receive a “child benefit” check — the amount determined by the number of children they have — every month until a child turns 17.

Since the study was conducted in a place that assists parents with money and childcare, the impact of grandparents’ support may go beyond that.

“The findings suggest that support exchanges across generations matter for maternal depression, even in the context of a Nordic welfare state,” Metsä-Simola said.

While this study was limited to the effects of grandparents’ support on mothers, we can be fairly certain that those benefits extended to children as well, since we know that kids do better when their moms are not depressed.

“The association between maternal depression and adverse child outcomes is well-established,” Metsä-Simola said.

Ways that grandparents can help

A grandparent’s support can begin upon a baby’s arrival. “Grandparents who have a strong relationship with their children are uniquely positioned to offer invaluable support during the fragile post-birth period,” Princess McKinney-Kirk, a postpartum doula and the author of a book about postpartum belly-binding, told HuffPost.

“Isolation and lack of support is one of the biggest precursors for postpartum depression,” she said, noting that traditional postpartum care rituals from around the world provide precisely that kind of support. In its absence, or in the absence of sufficient nutrition or sleep, new parents are more likely to experience problems such as “brain fog, anxiety, baby blues, mood disorders, and prolonged recovery,” McKinney-Kirk said.

“Oftentimes grandparents bring a deeper layer of connection and comfort for a new mom,” McKinney-Kirk said. “Their involvement can significantly enhance the well-being of both the mother and the newborn, providing crucial support that fosters a healthy mother-baby relationship.”

In addition to offering words of encouragement and “gentle guidance (when asked),” she suggested the following ways for grandparents to offer postpartum support to new parents:

  • Cook favorite meals and freeze during your visit, or give gift cards to restaurants or meal delivery services (not the ones that require cooking)

  • Do chores like folding laundry, washing dishes, or taking out the trash.

  • Provide childcare for older siblings.

  • Offer to hold the baby so that a parent can take a shower or eat a meal with two hands.

  • Pay for the parent to receive recovery care, perhaps from a lactation counselor, physical therapist, acupuncturist, chiropractor or psychologist.

McKinney-Kirk emphasized that part of caring for a new baby means caring for the person who has just given birth.