The birth of a child is usually heralded by friends and family with joy and excitement. But for many women, the endless demands of parenthood can feel exhausting and overwhelming. In fact, between 19% and 24% of mothers with children under the age of three experience varying degrees of depression .

In an article published in the March 2006 Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine , researchers report that maternal depression can negatively impact the mother-child relationship. They found that depressed mothers were significantly less likely to interact as regularly with their infants—through play, reading, talking, or creating routines—than mothers who were not depressed. In addition, depressed mothers were significantly less likely to be breastfeeding two to four months after giving birth.

About the Study

The researchers recruited 4,874 demographically diverse mothers from 15 sites across the United States. When their children were two to four months old, the women reported any symptoms of depression they were experiencing. In addition, they answered questions about their parenting practices in the areas of safety (i.e., do you put your child to sleep on his or her back at both naptime and bedtime), feeding (i.e., are you still breastfeeding), and healthy development (i.e., do you play with your child at least once a day).

At two to four months after giving birth, 17.8% of women in this study reported symptoms of depression. Depressed women were significantly less likely to be breastfeeding two to four months after giving birth than women who were not depressed. Women who were depressed were also significantly less likely to read to or play with their infant at least once a day, talk to their infant while working, or following two or more routines with their infant, compared to women who were not depressed. This was true even after the researchers took other relevant factors such as the mothers’ age, race, education and income levels into consideration. In this study, depression did not affect safety practices.

This study is limited by the researchers’ reliance on the mothers to accurately report their own levels of depression and interaction with their children.

How Does This Affect You?

This study demonstrated that maternal depression may negatively affect the way a mother interacts with her infant. Although the depressed mothers in this study did follow safe parenting practices, they were less likely to breastfeed, and were less engaged with their children overall.

Caring for an infant can be exhausting and demanding. It’s all too easy for a depressed mother to lose sight of her own health in the unending cycle of feedings, burpings, and diaper changes. Knowing that your child may suffer if you don’t seek help for your depression may help put things in perspective. If you feel overwhelmed or suspect that you may be depressed, talk to your physician and your child’s pediatrician—you and your child both stand to benefit.