More Reasons Not to Underestimate Postpartum Depression – Negative Effects on the Baby

A previous article already introduced some of the symptoms and risks of Postpartum Depression (PPD), but I would still like to emphasize the profound effects of this disorder. In this particular stage of life, depression does not only hurt the new mother, but poses threat for the well-being of the baby as well. In other words, It could be an ailment for two. This makes the need for timely and adequate help even more compelling.

Beyond the emotional and psychological suffering experienced by women with PPD, there are multiple negative effects for the infant. Women who experience more severe or prolonged PPD symptoms are more likely to develop insecure attachment to their infants and perceive their baby in a negative way, unable to enjoy the bonding and joy reported by healthy mothers.1  A body of research shows that children of depressed mothers tend to receive lower scores on measures of intellectual and motor development when compared to children born to non-depressed mothers. These babies also tend to be fussier  and of more difficult temperament.1  Another unfortunate consequence is that children of depressed mothers typically react poorly to stress, show poorer academic performance, delayed development of self-regulation, low self-esteem, lack of social competence and multiple behavioral problems.2

At least one study3 has shown that infants born to depressed mothers experience significant sleep disturbance in the developmental period between two weeks and the first six months of life. The difference is compelling when compared to infants of non-depressed mothers. This is especially troubling since it is known that this initial phase of life is a critical developmental period for sleep-wake cycles, melatonin and temperature rhythms.3

Depressed mothers tend to be more irritable and hostile towards their child, interacting with either intrusive, controlling and over-stimulating style or with withdrawn, passive and under-stimulating style.4 Neither of those extremes is beneficial for infant development. In comparison with healthy mothers, mothers with PPD touch their babies less frequently and more often do it in a negative, harmful way. Depressed mothers also have different vocal behavior, more negative affect and engage in less baby talk. Overall, they spend less time playing with the child or reading, talking, and touching. This contributes to creating an inadequate environment for the developing infant, which is deprived of mother-child bonding, synchrony and enrichment activities. Additionally, depressed mothers are less likely to begin breastfeeding and even when they do, they are more likely to discontinue in around 4 to 16 weeks.4

Women with PPD are more likely to start smoking or abuse alcohol and illicit substances which can further exacerbate the severity of their symptoms and the negative effect on the child. Further, these mothers are at greater risk for experiencing physical, emotional or sexual abuse.5

References:

1. Cho, H. J., Kwon, J. H., & Lee, J. J. (2008). Antenatal cognitive-behavioral therapy for prevention of postpartum depression: a pilot study. Yonsei Medical Journal, 49(4), 553-562.   2. Goodman, S. H. & Gotlib, I. H. (1999). Risk for psychopathology in the children of depressed mothers: a developmental model for understanding mechanisms of transmission. Psychological Review, 106(3), 458-490.   3. Armitage, R., Flynn, H., Hoffmann, R., Vazquez, D., Lopez, J., & Marcus, S. (2009). Early developmental changes in sleep in infants: the impact of maternal depression. Sleep, 32(5), 693-696.   4. Field, T. (2010). Postpartum depression effects on early interactions, parenting and safety practices: a review. Infant Behavioral development, 33(1), 1. doi:10.1016/j.infbeh.2009.10.005.   5. Fitelson, E., Kim, S., Baker, A. S., & Leight, K. (2011). Treatment of postpartum depression:clinical, psychological and pharmacological options. International Journal of Women’s Health, 3, 1-14.

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