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Mama’s Got the Blues: Impact of Maternal Depression on Attachment in Infants and Young Children

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Mama’s Got the Blues: Impact of Maternal Depression on Attachment in Infants and Young Children

By Dr. Harleen Hutchinson, Executive Director, The Journey Institute, Inc.

Pregnancy and motherhood are two of the most exciting times in a woman’s life. However, many women experience changes in mood and feelings during pregnancy and postpartum for up to a year. This is not unusual, and depression can affect women of any race, age, or socioeconomic background. While many women experience some mild mood changes during or after the birth of a child, 15 to 20% of women experience more significant symptoms of depression or anxiety; and 1 in 7 women suffer from postpartum depression.

Unfortunately, many women struggle when this occurs and often associate this experience with being “Not-A Good-Enough Mother.” One in eleven infants will experience their mother’s major depression in their first year of life, and the rates are even higher for mothers with previous histories of depression or those experiencing other stressors, such as financial hardship or social isolation. Maternal depression is the most common complication of pregnancy and childbirth. It is also known as Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorder. Depressed mothers are more likely to engage in less stimulation and interactive responses with their young children, often impacting the development of the parts of the brain that are involved in learning and memory. When a woman is pregnant and experiences depression, this affects the body’s stress response and immune system of the fetus. This connection increases the chance that the fetus will become more vulnerable to withdrawn care than babies who are born to mothers who are not depressed. Ongoing postpartum depression often impacts the interactional cycle between the mother and the child, impacting on the mother’s ability to read the child’s cues, and engage positively. Therefore, when a mother becomes depressed, her caregiving ability affects the young child’s development, as children function in the context of caregiving relationships.

Maternal depression, if untreated, can have significant impact on the infant’s and mother’s ability to form secure attachment or bond, which impacts the quality of the parent-child relationship. Young children with mothers who
are depressed are at higher risk for delays in social, emotional cognitive and physical development, elevated levels of stress hormones, lack of breastfeeding, early discontinuation of breastfeeding, increase crying and irritability, dysregulation, increase risk for abuse and neglect, and long term mental health problems.

Having a baby is challenging and every woman deserves support. So, if you are experiencing emotional changes or think that you may be depressed, make an appointment to talk with a professional. Getting help is the first step towards helping you and your baby, as you keep your baby’s feelings in mind.

Some the common symptoms are:

Sad feelings, excessive worry and anxiety
More sleep than usual, difficulty going to sleep
Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
Guilty feelings of parenting, loss of interest in things you once enjoy
Frequent crying for no reason, loss of interest in caring your yourself
Lack of motivation towards doing everyday tasks
Lack of pleasure or delight in your baby or difficulty bonding with your baby
Thoughts about hurting yourself or your baby
As a community of professionals, when we intervene early, we increase the likelihood of the mother’s attachment with her infant or young child. This, in turn, can be beneficial in lifting the mother’s mood and levels of functioning in the parent-child relationship. Therefore, it is our responsibility and professional obligation to ensure that timely screening, assessment, and treatment are being provided to mothers during their medical visit to help reduce the stigma of asking for help. So, if you are a mother or woman who are experiencing maternal or postpartum depression, and do not know where to seek help, call 211-Broward to be linked with professionals in your community who works with women who are experiencing these symptoms. Remember! You are not alone.

Dr. Harleen Hutchinson, is the Executive Director of the Journey Institute, Inc. She is a psychologist, an Infant Mental Health Specialist, and Chair of the Broward County Infant Mental Health Workgroup.

Mian, A.I. (2005). Depression in pregnancy and the post-partum period: Balancing adverse effects of untreated illness with treatment risks. Journal of Psychiatric Practice, 11 (6), 389-396.

National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (2009). Depression in parents, parenting, and children: Opportunities to improve identification, treatment,
and prevention. Committee on Depression, Parenting Practices and the Healthy Development of Children, Board on Children Youth and Families, Division on Behavioral and Social

Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Tronic, E., & Reck, C. (2009). Infants of depressed mothers. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 17, 147-156.