How Maternal Depression Affects Children

Lone pregnant woman sitting on the bed looking out at the window in the morning
Massimiliano Finzi / Getty Images

Major depression can be a significant burden on the life of an individual. It can also impact the life of those around them and those who are dependent on them. Children are particularly vulnerable when their mothers are struggling with depression.

This article focuses on the potential effects on the physical and emotional well being of a child when a depressive episode and extreme stress is experienced by an expectant or new mother, the prenatal period and postpartum period, respectively.

Of course, these are inherently complicated stages in a pregnant person's life, but the significant hormone fluctuations associated with these periods may also contribute to increased susceptibility to mood disorders during these times.

This article discusses the effects of prenatal depression on fetuses and covers how postpartum depression affects parenting.

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Effects of Prenatal Depression and Prenatal Stress

When an episode of depression occurs during pregnancy, this is known as prenatal depression. This condition presents some specific risks to the unborn child. Living in high stress situations are also known to have negative consequences to the fetus.

Premature Birth and Low Birth Weight

Prenatal depression is associated with both premature birth and low birth weight. Of note, it is possible for a baby to be born at less than a healthy weight, even when born at full term. Premature births and low birth weight are two of the most common causes of neuro-cognitive deficits and developmental milestone delays in children.

Prenatal depression also increases the likelihood of pre-eclampsia, which is a condition characterized by dangerously high blood pressure in the third trimester.

While some studies looked at the illness of depression during pregnancy, some assessed the relationship between prenatal stress and fetal health. Experiencing external stressors while pregnant, such as an abusive relationship or socioeconomic deprivation, is shown to potentially be harmful to the unborn child. Prenatal stress can compromise uterine blood supply, which is the source of nutrients to the unborn child. This can potentially lead to restricted growth of a developing fetus.

Substance Use During Pregnancy

The indirect way in which maternal stress effects the fetus is that it can alter behavior during pregnancy. An expectant mother facing emotional hardship may turn to drugs, alcohol, or tobacco as a coping mechanism. This introduces the risks associated with fetal exposure to those substances.

Overly stressed pregnant women are also shown to be less likely to seek out prenatal care and are less likely to engage in appropriate health behaviors, such as getting enough sleep and eating a nutritious diet.

How Prenatal Depression Effects the Child After Birth

Depression experienced during the prenatal period can go on to effect that exposed fetus well after they are born, into childhood. Prenatal depression can impair future socio-emotional development of the child. This term describes a young person's ability to be socially competent and emotionally intelligent. These are the building blocks of what we associate with psychological stability and good behavior in an academic setting.

For mothers experiencing depression during pregnancy, the odds of having children with behavioral difficulties were 1.5 to almost 2 times greater than for mothers not experiencing prenatal depression.

How Postpartum Depression Affects Parenting

Depression experienced by a mother just after birth is referred to as postpartum depression and affects approximately 10% to 15% of new mothers.

Postpartum depression can hinder a new mom's ability to emotionally bond to her newborn. The quality of the mother-infant relationship is known to be a key determinant of a child's future mental health and neurological development.

In one study, infants of mothers experiencing postpartum depression were twice as likely to have difficulty bonding with others during childhood than were infants of non-depressed mothers.

Maternal emotional unavailability and decreased responsiveness to their child’s needs can also be the fallout of postpartum depression. Postpartum depression also increases the likelihood of a mother having a harsh parenting style.

A Word From Verywell

Unfortunately, the societal expectation of being cheerful during pregnancy or early motherhood can stigmatize treatment seeking for mental health issues such as depression. However, the data presented in this article should be a encouragement for discussing treatment options with your doctor if you are living with stress or think you may have depression during or just after pregnancy.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind 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.
  1. Slavich GM, Sacher J. Stress, sex hormones, inflammation, and major depressive disorder: Extending Social Signal Transduction Theory of Depression to account for sex differences in mood disordersPsychopharmacology (Berl). 2019;236(10):3063-3079. doi:10.1007/s00213-019-05326-9

  2. Madigan S, Oatley H, Racine N, et al. A meta-analysis of maternal prenatal depression and anxiety on child socioemotional developmentJ Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2018;57(9):645-657.e8. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2018.06.012

  3. Brummelte S, Galea LA. Postpartum depression: Etiology, treatment and consequences for maternal careHorm Behav. 2016;77:153-166. doi:10.1016/j.yhbeh.2015.08.008

By Margaret Seide, MD
Margaret Seide, MS, MD, is a board-certified psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of depression, addiction, and eating disorders.