When Mom is Stressed or Depressed, Baby Can Pay the Price


People often think that infants are resilient and that, at worst, don’t remember what happens to them once they grow up.  However, decades of research are showing that babies’ very early experiences can leave a lasting imprint on them in many ways.

What Research Has Taught Us

We know that when women feel safe, secure and loved, cascades of love hormone (oxytocin) are released both during intimacy and birth.  These love hormones flood the mother’s blood system and bathe the developing fetus.  This is good news because it positively impacts the development of the pre-born infant’s brain readying it to experience love and happiness. On the other hand, the release of fear and stress hormone (adrenaline) during intimacy and birth is a double assault on the newborn and can interrupt the actual architecture of his/her brain and impair an infant’s healthy brain development.

After birth, if  babies do not have access to support from a caring adult, they can once again experience increases in their toxic stress load.  When we consider that postpartum depression (PPD – or depression that occurs after the birth of the baby) is now the most commonly found complication for the birthing mother, affecting about 12% of American women, it becomes of great concern.  The percent of women affected by PPD increases when you look at different groups of women:  in low-income women, 25% are affected by PPD; and 40% to 60% of  low-income teenaged mothers experience PPD.  Unfortunately, postpartum depression goes under-diagnosed and ineffectively treated in the majority of newly delivered mothers.

Not only is PPD  an emotional burden for a woman, but it also weighs heavily against the mother’s ability to be emotionally and physically available for her child.  This bad affect on bonding goes both ways.  The effect of PPD can manifest in infants as their being less able to form attachments initially with their mothers and, as their life progresses, with others if intervention is not successful.  This has far-reaching implications and research shows that it can lead to:

  1. negative effect on the child’s well-being
  2. long-term child psychological problems and behavioral disorders even in children ages 7-9
  3. impaired school readiness of children
  4. poor attachment to others including family, school and social relationships
  5. decreased IQ, especially in male adolescents (one study shows boys with depressed mothers had IQs 22 points lower than boys whose mothers did not experience PPD)
  6. increased developmental delays in children (one study showed there was 50% higher chance of developmental delays in children whose mothers have depression)


What Can be Done?

There are actually strategies that can assist both mothers and babies.  We now know that by treating PPD we can reduce  maternal PPD symptoms and actually decrease the likelihood of psychological problems in children.  The earlier we identify and treat PPD, the better for mothers and babies, God-willing.


How Doulas Can Help

An infant is most at risk of being impacted by his or her mother’s postpartum depression between two weeks and four months of life.  If we can intervene then, it is possible, by Allah’s permission, to stop the cascade of negative outcomes for mother and baby caused by PPD and other stressors.  The doula has a unique position because of the fact that she has developed a close and supportive relationship with the birthing mother during the pregnancy and birth experiences.  This window into the mother’s behaviors gives the doula a baseline from which to assess emotional and depressive symptoms in the mother postpartum.  During the postpartum home visits, the trained doula can do a basic screen for maternal/infant mal-adjustment and encourage the mother to seek early care if concerning symptoms are present.  Doulas can also assist by teaching infant massage, which is shown to have benefits for both mothers and babies.  Giving massages can improve mother’s mood, reduce tension thus reduce production of stress hormones.  This can have positive effects on maternal and infant sleep, infant crying and overall mother-infant interaction.  All-in-all, these interventions can go a long way to making mothers and babies more content and reducing the negative effects on infant brain development caused by as a result of postpartum depression.[1]



[1] Kulbel, Michele, “The Impact of Postpartum Depression on Infants/Children and Evidence-Based Interventions for the PPD and Maternal-Child Interactions,” Emotional & Behavioral Disorders in Youth, Winter 2010, pg 17- 23.