Babies are resilient. There’s no doubt about it. But babies and children may be negatively affected by a mom’s untreated depression, anxiety, or other mood disorder during pregnancy or postpartum. And it seems to me that this might not be a risk worth taking. Moms need help for PPD.
Please note carefully the specifics of what I said above: “Babies and children may be affected by a mother’s UNTREATED depression, anxiety, or other mood disorder during pregnancy or postpartum.” Many, many of you can attest to the fact that children whose mothers suffered from prenatal or postpartum depression or anxiety and received treatment are just fine- even thriving.
Moms who make it a priority to get help for PPD, follow treatment recommendations from a trained professional, get well, and take care of themselves do so to benefit not just themselves but also their children. And most of these kiddos go on to be happy and healthy preschoolers, teens and adults.
What we worry about is when a mom’s depression or anxiety goes untreated. It is these instances when there is high potential for emotional, social and developmental delays in babies and children. I say this fully knowing that this fact may bring additional layers of anxiety to women who already suffer, and I am hopeful that those women understand that this post is not a condemnation or a finger shake. It is, instead, a compassionate offering through a realistic look at the risks that may come to those who do not reach out for the support that they deserve.
I am motivated to write this after reading an article in the New York Times Magazine that talks about Depression in Preschoolers. While we know that there are many factors contributing to the development of depressive symptoms in children this young, and that often these children do not have parents who are depressed themselves (and, conversely, having a depressed parent does not necessarily mean that a young child will also be depressed), we do know that many of these little people may not have received the empathetic attunement and emotional mirroring from their mothers that they need to thrive. Babies need to be attended to and heard, they need to be held and comforted, they desire eye contact and voice recognition, and if a mother is unable to provide these things because she is depressed or anxious, a baby may suffer the consequences.
So, here are some of the risks for babies and children whose mothers suffer from UNTREATED antenatal or postpartum depression and anxiety:
- Pregnant women who are depressed are less likely to take adequately care of themselves and their unborn babies.
- Preterm labor has been linked to depression and anxiety in pregnant mothers.
- Preeclampsia has been linked to depression and anxiety in pregnant mothers.
- Depression and anxiety during pregnancy has been linked to low birth weight in babies.
- Babies whose mothers were depressed or anxious during pregnancy are more likely to have eating and sleeping challenges and are more likely to be difficult to soothe.
- Attachment and bonding may be negatively affected and this can have an impact on a child’s ability to form healthy relationships during school-aged years and on through adulthood.
- Fathers, whose partners are depressed, are also more likely to develop depressive symptoms in the postpartum period. If this happens, neither parent may be able to attend to the emotional needs of their newborn.
- Mothers who have postpartum depression tend to spend less time engaging in eye contact, mirroring facial and voice expressions, and casual play with their babies. All of these activities are important for bonding and attachment.
With this said, we know that other caregivers, such as a father, grandparent, other family member, friends, and nannies can provide the emotional reciprocity that is needed if and when a mom is temporarily unable. While a baby needs its mother first and foremost, that child will absolutely be okay if, temporarily, it is getting all of its physical and emotional needs met by someone else. What matters most, truly, is that mom gets the support that she needs to feel well so that she can care for her babe in the ways that are important to both of them.
So, moms, if you are suffering, please get help. For you and for your little one.
Kate Kripke, LCSW