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Home > Research Articles > Mothers' Minds and Babies' Bellies

New York Times

Thursday, April 10, 2003

By JOHN O'NEIL

Others who are depressed or anxious are more likely to take their children to doctors for stomachaches and abdominal pains, a new study has concluded.

The study found that mothers with the highest levels of depression were twice as likely as mothers with the lowest levels to seek medical help for abdominal pain reported by their children. The gap persisted even when the figures were adjusted to account for different levels of pain.

Dr. Rona L. Levy, a psychologist at the University of Washington School of Social Work, presented the findings to a conference of the Society of Behavioral Medicine in Salt Lake City late last month.

The study made use of survey data from patients enrolled in a large health maintenance organization. It had been collected for a broader study examining the ways that pain and coping mechanisms are transferred from mothers to their children.

The researchers focused on 326 children who had suffered a stomachache or abdominal pain in the two weeks before the survey, according to the mothers' responses.

The researchers then examined the H.M.O.'s records to see which of the mothers had brought the children to see pediatricians for similar complaints in the previous three months. The data were then compared with the mothers' mental states.

"We are not advocating that parents ignore physical symptoms in their children," Dr. Levy said. But it is important, she said, for pediatricians and parents to realize that the decision to seek medical treatment can be influenced by a mother's psychological state. Children learn how to deal with life's aches and pains by watching how their parents respond to them, she said.