The Impact of Maternal Depression on Children

November 15, 2019
When a mother suffers from depression, her children experience the consequences as well. In this article, we'll tell you how you can reduce this impact.

Depression during pregnancy and after giving birth is much more common than we would like to think. What’s more, many women continue with this condition for years, which affects their parenting. Knowing how maternal depression impacts children is the first step in taking proper measures.

Many of the symptoms of depression are easy to confuse with normal experiences that have to do with pregnancy and postpartum. Therefore, there’s a great risk that many women will fail to get the diagnosis and treatment they need. And this will only make the severity of their situation worse.

However, the consequences of depression don’t only affect the women who suffer from it. Depression affects everyone around them, particularly their children. Given that early childhood is a key time in a person’s development, a child’s early experiences can continue to be influential even in adult life.

How does maternal depression affect children?

Even during gestation, the children of depressed mothers present a higher heart rate. What’s more, there is a higher risk of premature birth and of low birth weightLater on, these babies are less active and less sensitive to facial and vocal expressions. What’s more, they have a higher level of stress hormones than other infants.

The Impact of Maternal Depression on Children

At the same time, these children are more prone to developing mood disorders and have difficulties adapting socially and academically. It’s also likely that maternal depression impacts children’s level of intelligence as well as the quality of their health. And finally, these children are at greater risk of developing depression over the course of their lives.

However, not all children of depressed mothers display these difficulties. This is an indication, therefore, that the relationship isn’t direct or unequivocal. Rather, it tells us that certain mediating factors are at play.

In what way does this influence occur?

The quality of the bond between mother and child

Establishing an attachment between mother and child is vital to the well-being of little ones. However, mothers who suffer from depression have a hard time perceiving the needs of their children correctly. 

In the same way, they have difficulties when it comes to interpreting their communication. As a result, the synchronization between mother and child is poorer, which is very confusing for babies.

In some cases, mothers may not meet their child’s needs, or their responses to those needs may be inconsistent. Either way, this results in an insecure attachment, which leads to emotional consequences for little ones. But it’s depression itself that prevents women from perceiving and responding correctly to their baby’s signs and signals.

Matrimonial conflicts

Another one of the most relevant areas that has an impact on children is the relationship between their parents. When one of the parents has an illness like depression, this inevitably affects the relationship with his or her partner as well.

In these cases, positive communication between both parties becomes almost null. In turn, arguments and accusations become predominant. What’s more, in general, they fail to practice conflict resolution, which only makes the situation worsen. Observing conflicts between parents considerably affects a child’s functioning in a variety of areas.

The Impact of Maternal Depression on Children

Inadequate stimulation

Lastly, mothers who suffer from depression involve themselves less in their children’s upbringing. Given their feelings of apathy and despair, they offer their children fewer learning experiences and tools. At the same time, they dedicate less time to sensory and intellectual stimulation.

What’s more, they set a behavioral model that is inappropriate for their child’s future. Little ones grow up observing their mother’s behavior in which sadness, lack of interest, and exhaustion are predominant. The continuous presence of this model during a child’s upbringing will have an impact on his or her personality to some degree.

How to reduce the impact of maternal depression on children

If you want to avoid this situation, the first thing we must do is address a mother’s depressive state. It’s important to pay attention to any symptom, especially once the baby is born. It’s okay to ask for help – in fact, it’s fundamental.

But getting help from a professional is only part of the solution. We can also try to minimize the impact of maternal depression by paying attention to the mediating factors. 

It’s important that we offer our children proper stimulation and respond to their needs adequately. What’s more, we should make an effort to provide them with a positive family environment which will help to reduce the influence of depression on their upbringing.

  • Huber, M. O., Jiménez, M. R., & Largo, A. M. (2015). Depresión materna perinatal y vínculo madre-bebé: consideraciones clínicas. Summa psicológica UST12(1), 77-87.
  • Cummings, E. M., & Kouros, C. D. (2011). Depresión materna y su relación con el desarrollo y la adaptación de los niños. Enciclopedia sobre el desarrollo de la primera infancia [Encyclopedia on early childhood development]. Montreal: Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development. Recuperado el6.