It is well known that maternal depression negatively affects children’s behaviour in the first years of life. But according to a new study, that’s not necessarily the case if the family functions well and if the mother, despite her depression, is able to parent sensitively.

The new study bolsters a similar finding that we recently reported — that sensitive fathering buffers the negative effects of a mother’s depression.

The researchers did two things that earlier studies did not. First, they directly observed children’s temperament, rather than asking the mothers to rate it. The mother and child were filmed together for 45 minutes and then scored by trained individuals. Scores were applied to a number of scales, for example, happy/sad, achieving/frustrated, content/fussy, exploring/inhibited, active/idle, enthusiastic/detached, and distracted/focused. Second, they made multiple observations at eight, 15 and 30 months after the birth, longer than in other studies. Maternal depression was assessed by an interview with the mother. Maternal parenting sensitivity was measured via the filmed observations, and family functioning was observed during a family meal when the children reached 15 months. A film of the family meal was rated in relation to clarity of roles, effective communication, and interactions between family members.

Infants whose mothers were depressed after the birth were rated as consistently difficult over time, but only if, at the same time, maternal sensitivity was rated as low or if family functioning was rated as poor. Otherwise, maternal sensitivity and good family functioning protected the child from the negative impacts of the mother’s depression.

Based on their findings, the researchers recommend that programs to support healthy child outcomes in families with a depressed mother should bolster family relationships. Sometimes depressed mothers are not ready or able to engage in treatment; in these situations in particular, helping other family members bcome sources of strength and resilience is important. Narrowly focusing on the mother-infant dyad, as support programs often do, may not be the best way to organise help for maternal depression.

Header photo: Kamaljith K V. Creative Commons.

References

Parade SH, Armstrong LM, Dickstein S & Seifer R (2017), Family Context Moderates the Association of Maternal Postpartum Depression and Stability of Infant Temperament, Child Development