Having children is an exciting, rewarding experience for most parents. For women suffering from depression, however, parenting is especially difficult and untreated depression can have long-lasting effects on their children.

You've probably heard of post-partum blues, in which new mothers experience mood swings and feelings of sadness shortly after birth. Up to 50 percent of new mothers have some degree of post-partum blues. It generally passes within a couple of weeks as their hormones stabilize.

Post-partum depression, on the other hand, occurs less frequently, affecting eight to 20 percent of new mothers. When women are depressed during pregnancy and don't seek appropriate treatment, their depression can worsen following their baby's birth and can even persist well into their child's formative years. Babies born predisposed to have a difficult temperament may also provoke depression in vulnerable mothers.

Experts believe depression can compromise a mother's natural maternal instinct and ability to be sensitive to her children's needs. Depressed mothers don't engage as well with their children and may struggle with simple childcare tasks, like taking their child to the doctor or buckling them into a car seat. They're also less consistent in their parenting. Unfortunately, it's a bit of a vicious circle: depressed mothers don't respond well to their children so their children don't respond well to them, and so on.

Research over the past several decades has repeatedly shown that children with depressed mothers are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. They also tend to perform more poorly on measures of school readiness, verbal comprehension, and expressive language skills at age three. When maternal depression persists over time, children can become less cooperative and exhibit more behavioral problems.

One study found that children (mostly boys) with mothers who were depressed at childbirth were more likely to fight with their peers at age 11. Experts suspect that a mothers' depression is associated with her children's inability to regulate their attention and emotions. 

Studies have shown, however, that if mothers are sensitive to their children's needs, despite being depressed, their children generally fare better.

The good news is that effectively treating depressed mothers has a positive effect on their children, especially with early intervention. Depression is highly treatable with antidepressants, psychotherapy, or both. Mental health experts recommend that pediatricians incorporate simple screening for maternal depression during regular office visits so they can identify telltale symptoms and direct mothers towards appropriate help.


Trudeau, Michelle. "Study Finds Link Between Mother, Child Depression." National Public Radio. Web. 26 March 2006. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5293151

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. "Maternal Depression Linked with Social and Language Development, School Readiness: Maternal Sensitivity Helps These Children Fare Better." Press release. Web. 3 September 1999. http://www.nichd.nih.gov/news/releases/depression.cfm

Bio-Medicine.org. "Link Between Mothers Depression and Violence in Children." Web. 3 December 2003. http://www.bio-medicine.org/medicine-news/Link-Between-Mothers-Depression-and-Violence-in-Children--2391-1/

Harmon, Katherine. "Mothers' Depression Can Go Well Beyond Children's Infancy." Scientific American. Web. 5 May 2010. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=maternal-depression

Brooks, Megan. "Children's Psychiatric Symptoms Ease When Mom's Depression Lifts." Medscape Medical News. Web. 15 March 2011. processing http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/738984

Illinois Academy of Family Physicians/Family Practice Education Network. "Maternal Depression and Child Development: Strategies for Primary Care Providers." Web. January 2007.