An Overview of Baby Depression

Upset baby reaching for parent

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Infants don't have a life history to weigh them down or make them sad, but that doesn't mean they can't experience depression. Although it has not been proven via empirical studies, many mental health professionals do believe, based on case studies and clinical experience, that babies can and do become depressed. It's not common, however, with roughly one in 40 infants experiencing signs of depression.

Symptoms

According to experts, one of the primary ways to recognize depression in infants is their emotional vitality. In order to gauge this, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is my baby expressing a vibrant range of emotions?
  • Is my baby quiet and subdued?
  • Does my baby appear withdrawn, perhaps frequently staring into space?
  • Is it difficult to get your baby to engage with you socially?
  • Does my baby's facial expression appear sad (infrequent smiling)?

Although different babies will naturally have different personalities and temperaments, if this behavior represents a change from your child's normal behavior, it could be a sign of depression.

Rather surprisingly, crying is not necessarily a sign of a depressed baby. In fact, a depressed infant may get labeled as being a "good" baby because they do not cry or make a fuss that often.

Causes

There are several possible causes of depression in infants. Like other types of childhood depression, genetics and brain chemistry can play a role in an infant's emotional health—as can the mental health of the parent or caregiver. Since babies learn a lot about their emotions from those around them, if a parent is suffering from depression, the baby may have a greater chance of developing it. Infants in poor or abusive homes are also at an increased risk.

Diagnosis

While recognizing possible symptoms of depression is important, your baby exhibiting some signs of a depressed mood doesn't necessarily mean that they are experiencing clinical depression. According to the Diagnostic Classification of Mental Health and Developmental Disorders of Infancy and Early Childhood (the DC:0-3R), which was published in 2005 by a non-profit organization called Zero to Three, the following five conditions should be met in order for a diagnosis of depression to be made in an infant:

  • The emotional and behavioral pattern must represent a change from what is typical for the child.
  • A depressed or irritable mood must be present every day, for most of the day, over a period of two weeks.
  • The depressed symptoms should occur in more than one activity and within more than one relationship.
  • The symptoms must cause the child distress, impair their functioning, and/or impede their development.
  • The symptoms must not be due to a general medical condition, a medication, or an environmental toxin.

Treatment

If your child has only been experiencing these symptoms for a few days, it may well be that they are simply going through a brief upset related to your absence which will quickly pass as they adjust to the return of your normal routine.

If your infant continues to have difficulties, you may wish to make an appointment with a parent-infant psychotherapist or another mental health professional with experience working with young children.

Although medications and therapy are not administered to children so young, a psychotherapist can work with you to help you better understand and fulfill your baby's needs so they feel safe and secure in their environment. Music therapy and infant massage might also be viable options to help ease any symptoms of depression.

Coping

Deciphering your infant's emotions is never easy and throwing the possibility of depression into the mix can make it even more daunting. After all, babies are unable to verbalize their mood or describe how they're feeling or what they're experiencing.

One of the best ways to cope as a parent or caregiver is to take steps to protect your own mental health, which includes getting help if you're also living with depression or coping with postpartum depression. If you are wondering whether you might be experiencing postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety, set up an appointment with your obstetrician right away. Treatments are available.

A Word From Verywell

Caring for your infant means caring for their physical health as well as their emotional health. If you start early, you can make mental health a priority in your family and prevent depression from manifesting into more severe problems later in life. 

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Article Sources
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  1. Egger HL, Emde RN. Developmentally sensitive diagnostic criteria for mental health disorders in early childhood: the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders-IV, the research diagnostic criteria-preschool age, and the diagnostic classification of mental health and developmental disorders of infancy and early childhood-revised. Am Psychol. 2011;66(2):95–106. doi:10.1037/a0021026

  2. Zero to Three. Diagnostic Classification of Mental Health and Developmental Disorders of Infancy and Early Childhood: Revised EditionWashington: Zero to Three Press, 2005.

Additional Reading
  • Zeanah, C. H., Jr. (Ed.). Handbook of infant mental health (3rd ed.). The Guilford Press; 2009.