The good news is postpartum depression (PPD) is treatable. Those who suffer from it are not bad parents. They are not monsters who will hurt or damage themselves, their child, or others. They do have an illness that can be treated. Postpartum and other perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMAD) can have serious consequences when left untreated. These consequences affect not just the sufferer but those closest to them as well. The littlest yet most important victims of untreated PMAD are the babies.
Research has shown that left untreated, PMAD can have serious ramification for the children of those who suffer from it. Problems in babies and children include behavioral issues, problems with emotional and social development, cognitive delays, and a greater risk for lifelong struggles with depression.
Effects of Maternal Depression on Children
Some of the research findings include:
- Depression during pregnancy causes problems for the newborn such as
inconsolability, sleep problems, decreased appetite, and less responsiveness with facial expressions.
- Babies with depressed mothers have a high incidence of excessive crying or colic.
- Mothers with PPD report infant sleep and crying problems more frequently than non-depressed mothers.
- Children whose fathers suffer with depression are about twice as likely to have behavioral problems in preschool.
- PPD in the mother is linked to poor cognitive test scores in children which can include learning to walk and talk later than other children the same age, learning difficulties, and problems in school.
- PPD in parents can lead to emotional problems later on for children such as increased anxiety, low self esteem, and less independence.
- Older children in the family may lose part of their childhood due to
emotional detachment from the child as part of the PPD.
- In rare but serious cases, there are instances where a parent commits suicide due to PMD. Children whose parents commit suicide are at greater risk for suicide later in life.
Only Untreated PMAD Impacts Children
PMAD can and does impact children. The adverse effects can start during pregnancy and occur for multiple reasons. Untreated depression and anxiety during pregnancy impact the developing baby as maternal hormones cross the placenta. These hormones lead to complications after birth such as fussiness, crying, and inconsolability. In one study, researchers looked at the brain activity of babies born to depressed mothers. These babies’ brain activity matched
the brain activity of adults diagnosed with major depression.
The effects of untreated PMAD continue after birth, changing from biological to environmental. It is difficult for people struggling with depression (not sleeping, irritable mood, tearfulness, appetite problems) to care for an infant. Bonding between mother and baby can be interrupted when the mom is depressed. The mom may have difficulty responding to the infant’s cues. Babies bond with their mother by giving cues (crying when wet or hungry, smiling, cooing) and having the cues responded to appropriately (changing the diaper, feeding, smiling and talking to back). Mothers with PMAD may be withdrawn and at times even feel hostile towards the baby making it difficult to respond to or many times even recognize cues.
It is important for all parents struggling with PMAD to know that it is not their fault.
Please note that it is untreated PMAD impacts children.
The message for people struggling with PMAD is that there is hope and healing but they need to get help. It is easy to read all of the negative impacts of PMAD on children and feel discouraged. But getting help not only will allow the parent feel better, but can prevent negative impacts in children as well.
Here is what you can do if you are struggling:
- Attend a good support group in your area. See www.postpartum.net for a support group near you.
- Find a therapist who has been trained in PMAD.
- Let your physician, psychiatrist, OB/GYN know you are struggling.
- Remember: this is not your fault and, with the right help, you will get better.
- How friends and families members can help!
PMAD Information & Resources
Gretchen Johnson, MSN, RN-BC, was the Mother and Baby Partial Hospitalization Clinical Services Manager and coordinator in this program’s development. She is a member of the Healthy Kent 2020 Perinatal Mood Disorder Coalition, American Psychiatric Nurses Association, and the Psychiatric Nursing Council of Southwest Michigan.