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Maternal Postpartum Mood Disorders May Increase Stress in Baby, Research Shows

mother tending to crying baby on bed

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Key Takeaways

  • When left unmanaged, maternal depression and anxiety can have lasting impacts on a child.
  • Staying in touch with both your doctor and your support network can improve outcomes.

Research is emerging that babies of depressed and anxious mothers may have a stronger stress response than other babies. It adds to previous research suggesting that behavior, mental health, and development of children is impacted by the mental health of a parent.

While this may be upsetting for new parents to consider, there are ways to improve outcomes and build resiliency in your children and yourself.

What the Study Shows

The small study coming out of Germany has determined that at 3 months of age, babies of depressed or anxious mothers had a greater stress response than babies with mothers who did not have anxiety or depression.

All mothers were asked to play with their babies, then cease all interaction but maintain eye contact for two minutes. During this time, all babies showed signs of distress, but babies of depressed or anxious mothers had a rise in heart rate significantly higher than the others, indicating a greater stress response.

As this research is still in the preliminary stages, more studies are needed to support and expand upon these results.

What This Means for New Moms

Psychotherapist Jennifer Branstetter says that “having this knowledge is a double edged sword.” It could affect a new mother’s sense of guilt, which can further exacerbate feelings of anxiety or depression.

On the other hand, being aware of the impact a parent’s emotions can have on their child may encourage parents to seek professional help if they feel that they are not coping.

What Can We Learn From This?

Branstetter explains that a baby with a heightened stress response is likely to cry more and take more effort to be soothed. This crying subsequently increases the stress response in the parent and can perpetuate feelings of inadequacy. With both baby and parent now stressed, it can be a bit of a negative cycle.

When it comes to breaking this cycle, a partner, friend or support person can help. When someone else who is not in a state of stress takes the baby for a cuddle, it can calm the baby and the stressed parent. It is not a reflection of any inadequacy in the stressed parent. You just need time to reset your sense of calm so your baby can feel this too.

Tania Paredes, LCSW, PhD

Moms have different needs; find what works for you and your baby. The most important thing is that moms know it's ok to meet their own needs and that it doesn't make them selfish. It just means they love their baby and themselves too.

— Tania Paredes, LCSW, PhD

Babies will often mirror the emotions of a caregiver in what is known as emotional co-regulation. The National Institute of Children’s Health Quality explains that emotional co-regulation is when a baby learns an emotional response from how a caregiver responds to a situation. So if you are stressed in a situation, the baby will learn this response. Or if you are happy in response to a stimulus, the baby will learn this as a happy experience.

What This Means For You

According to Postpartum Support International, 1 in 7 moms and 1 in 10 dads experience postpartum depression. Some first-time parents won’t recognize depression or anxiety for what it is. If you feel you are not coping or there are changes in your mood regulation, it is important to tell your doctor. By getting on top of depression or anxiety early, it can be successfully managed and improve outcomes for both mom and baby.

What to Do About It

The best thing you can do is look after yourself. Positive parenting and remaining sensitive to your child's needs is easier when your needs are met.

Licensed clinical social worker Tania Paredes, PhD, has spent years researching postnatal depression in both mothers and fathers. Her advice to new parents is to work together. When both parents hold equal space and roles in child care, they both feel better able to cope and rely on each other. By working together, they are able to ask for help before the stress of parenting becomes overwhelming.

If you are a single parent however, this can be more challenging. Nonetheless, it is important to have time to tend to your own needs. If this means utilizing friends, family, or a childcare provider to help you find space and time for yourself, that is ok.

"What matters most in a strong mom-baby attachment is the quality of time moms spend with their babies...not the quantity," says Paredes.

Tania Paredes, LCSW, PhD

What matters most in a strong mom-baby attachment is the quality of time moms spend with their babies...not the quantity.

— Tania Paredes, LCSW, PhD

Connecting with other like-minded parents can also be useful to help you cope with the challenges of early parenthood. One study showed that mommy-baby group therapy sessions were helpful in providing a social network, decreasing self-reported symptoms of depression, and increasing self-reported parenting capacity.

Paredes advises that connecting with other parents is helpful, regardless of whether you opt for a therapy group or just a social group with no particular agenda. Social connection, although difficult during COVID-19, is important for our health and wellbeing.

"Moms have different needs; find what works for you and your baby," Paredes says. "The most important thing is that moms know it's ok to meet their own needs and that it doesn't make them selfish. It just means they love their baby and themselves too."

If you are looking for a parents group to join, Branstetter suggests reaching out to your local OBGYN hospital, pediatrician, churches, or therapists in your area that may run group sessions. Ensure you stick with a licensed professional if you would like to opt for group therapy.

Although research does suggest there are impacts of parental depression and anxiety on babies and children, other research also shows us that there are ways to combat this. By being sensitive to your children's needs, getting help from health professionals, and accepting help from friends and family, you can counteract these impacts.

A Word From Verywell

This article makes reference to “Mother” and “Father” because this is what is represented in the literature studies that have been referenced in this article. We acknowledge and accept that families are dynamic and varied in their make-up.

Regardless of who is providing care for a child, it is important that you seek professional help if you feel you may be experiencing any signs or symptoms of depression or anxiety. It is also important that you find a support network, because no matter who you are, parenting can be hard.

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Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Ulmer-Yaniv A, Djalovski A, Priel A, Zagoory-Sharon O, Feldman R. Maternal depression alters stress and immune biomarkers in mother and child. Depress Anxiety. 2018;35(12):1145-1157. doi:10.1002/da.22818

  3. National Institute for Children's Health Quality. Children’s social and emotional development starts with co-regulation. 2020.

  4. Postpartum Support International. Did you know?. 2020.

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