Postpartum depression and anxiety can severely impact the relationship between a mother and her child. Long after the symptoms have waned, the child can still struggle with the psychological impact of the experience. Some studies have examined how specific postnatal maternal mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, and eating issues, can affect a child’s psychological well-being. But very little research has examined how a mother’s thought patterns, specifically worry and rumination, two behaviors common in anxiety and depression, influence a child’s development. Alan Stein of the Department of Psychiatry at Warneford Hospital at the University of Oxford in the U.K. was curious to find out how these issues affected the type of parenting a mother provided. People with anxiety and depression are often stuck in a negative mood, which can limit the amount of attention they provide their children. During infancy, the bond between mother and child is critical and lays the foundation for many aspects of a child’s psychological development and well-being throughout their lifetime.
For his study, Stein enlisted 253 new mothers and evaluated them and their infants 3 months, 6 months, and 10 months after delivery. After priming them with conditions that would induce worry and rumination, Stein found that the mothers who had anxiety or depression exhibited significant impairments in the mother-infant relationship compared to healthy participants. However, all of the mothers reported similar negative affect after the priming experiment, although the mothers with depression and anxiety were the only ones to experience a decrease in positive affect. Another interesting finding was the mothers’ response to their infants’ cries. Both the mothers with depression and anxiety had decreased responses after the priming, whereas the healthy controls responded more attentively as a result of being exposed to a worrisome cue. Stein also discovered that the mothers with anxiety responded with stronger control than the other mothers in the study, while their children showed decreased positive emotional control. Stein believes this study could benefit mothers with depression and anxiety and, ultimately, their children. He added, “Clinically, these findings suggest that treatment efforts may be enhanced by focusing on worry and rumination in mothers with both current and remitted generalized anxiety disorder and major depression.”
Stein, A., Craske, M. G., Lehtonen, A., Harvey, A., Savage-McGlynn, E., Davies, B., Goodwin, J., Murray, L., Cortina-Borja, M., Counsell, N. (2012, January 30). Maternal Cognitions and Mother–Infant Interaction in Postnatal Depression and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026847
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