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How does postpartum depression affect infants?

The effects of postpartum depression can be hard for a mother to cope with. They can also be hard on the baby. See more parenting pictures.
Photo courtesy of NIDA.gov

Pregnancy's fluctuating hormone levels are responsible for skin discoloration, strange food cravings, drooling, and bloated feet. Some women get dry eyes, hemorrhoids and acid reflux. Hormones can cause rapid hair growth during pregnancy and hair loss after the fact.

Lots of the physical side effects of pregnancy are well-known. Hemorrhoids and "morning sickness" are punch lines in countless movie scenes. But aside from the prenatal bursting-into-tears-over-nothing scene, the emotional effects aren't as familiar. Skyrocketing estrogen levels after delivery can cause extreme depression and anxiety, typically referred to as postpartum depression, or PPD.

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It doesn't make a great punch line, so it's more behind-the-scenes than, say, ice cream and pickles. But it's not at all rare. Up to one in five women experiences symptoms of PPD [source: Anderson]. These can include excessive crying, sadness, a feeling of emptiness and despair, appetite changes, insomnia, fatigue and, sometimes, extreme anxiety. Most women have at least a few of these symptoms to some degree after delivery, but they're usually mild and fade away after a week or two, as hormone levels start to balance out. In cases of PPD, they last, and they're pronounced enough to interfere with a mother's ability to care for her newborn. Some sufferers have thoughts of suicide or of harming the baby.

It's obvious these symptoms would be difficult for mothers to cope with. But they may be hard for babies to cope with, too. Infants don't know it, of course, but their mothers' depression could cause them long-term problems. (As if depressed new moms need more guilt.)

The good news is PPD is treatable.

In this article, we'll find out how postpartum depression may affect the babies of suffering moms. We'll learn about the potential cognitive issues that can result from a stilted relationship between mom and newborn, and see how those issues may extend into childhood. We'll also look into treatment options for PPD. The earlier a mom gets help, the better it is for everybody.

Cognitive effects on babies of depressed moms are a pretty logical result of PPD if you consider the mommy-centric nature of that first year of life. In most birthing centers, a newborn is placed on the mother's bare chest immediately after delivery. It's the first thing the baby feels outside the womb, and it's designed to facilitate bonding.

 

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Getting past postpartum depression starts with a trip to the doctor.
Getting past postpartum depression starts with a trip to the doctor.
Photo courtesy of NIH.gov

Early bonding with mom is crucial to a newborn's sense of security. The new world is much less comfortable than the warm, cushy uterus, and mom is the warm, cushy connection to that safe place.

If mom is depressed, that connection is unstable, impacting an infant's early development. A study conducted by Israeli researchers and published in the August 2009 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry is one of the latest to look at these impacts. The researchers identified several components of a baby's cognitive response and development that can be affected by a mother's postpartum depression: social engagement, stress level and fear reactivity.

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Fear reactivity is a survival instinct. When confronted with something new, an infant reacts with fear in order to protect itself. To interact in a healthy way with the world and the people in it, the baby must overcome that fear response, which can be measured concretely by cortisol levels. Cortisol is the "stress hormone."

The mother is the primary mediator between baby and world in the first year of life. Her own comfort with the world, herself and other people, along with her ability to pick up on and respond to her infant's cues, informs how comfortable her child feels interacting with new people and experiences. It effectively teaches the baby how safe the outside world is. A depressed mom is profoundly uncomfortable with her own life and less intuitive about her child's needs [source: Anderson]. The natural result is an infant who is more fearful and less open to novelty.

Since the earliest interactions between baby and mom and, by extension, baby and world, start to shape a child's social development, PPD's effects on fear reactivity and stress levels early in a baby's life can have long-term effects on social engagement. A U.K. study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in 1999 found that 5-year-olds whose mothers had been diagnosed with PPD had more behavior problems at home and at school [source: Murray]. There is even evidence that older children may have lower IQs if their mothers were depressed in the first months after delivery [source: Medscape].

This all sounds pretty damning, but it's not as bleak as it sounds. While postpartum depression was not very well-understood 50 (or even 20) years ago, it's now a highly studied, easily recognizable illness. Easily recognizable by mental-health experts, that is. So it's essential for moms to seek professional help early on (from a doctor, psychologist or social worker, typically) when any signs or symptoms of PPD persist beyond the first couple of weeks postpartum. The condition is often treated very successfully with therapy, medication or a combination of the two. Nipping the problem in the bud can help mom and baby avoid the potential cognitive effects of PPD.

For more information on postpartum depression and related topics, look over the links on the next page.

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Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Anderson, Pauline. "Postpartum Depression, Anxiety, May Affect Infant Development. Medscape Today. Aug. 20, 2009.fhttp://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/707719
  • Health Tip: Risk Factors for Postpartum Depression. U.S. News & World Report. Feb. 12, 2010.http://www.usnews.com/health/family-health/brain-and-behavior/articles/2010/02/12/health-tip-risk-factors-for-postpartum-depression.html
  • Murray, Lynne and Peter J. Cooper. Effects of postnatal depression on infant development. Archives of Disease in Childhood. 1997.http://adc.bmj.com/content/77/2/99.extract
  • Nauert, Rick, PhD. "Postpartum Depression's Effect on the Baby." PsychCentral. Aug. 21, 2009.http://psychcentral.com/news/2009/08/21/postpartum-depressions-effect-on-the-baby/7899.html
  • Postpartum Depression: Treatment Overview. WebMD.http://www.webmd.com/depression/postpartum-depression/postpartum-depression-treatment-overview
  • Recognizing and Screening for Postpartum in Moms of NICU infants: The Effect of PPD on Infants and Children. Medscape Today.http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/450938_6

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