Many mothers worry that their depression or anxiety will affect their baby.
Can depression or anxiety affect the baby?
This is a complex issue as many factors influence the characteristics, nature and development of a baby.
A mother’s depression or anxiety is only one of many factors.
Many mothers with depression or anxiety can and do respond appropriately to their baby – you do not need to be perfect.
One respected psychiatrist said “mothers can not always be sensitive and responsive to their infants. Intermittent failures will happen spontaneously.This is a necessary part of a baby learning its separateness from its mother. What is important is the overall balance of sensitivity and responsiveness.” He called this “good enough mothering”. This is the best any of us can hope to achieve
“Even though I felt exhausted and flat I managed to look after my baby. The only time I could smile was when he looked at me. He was so gorgeous. I was so pleased he was here – I couldn’t understand why I was depressed." Karen
What will have an impact on the baby?
These are as, or more, important than the effects from depression and anxiety
- Mothers ability to be ‘emotionally present’ for the baby (this is affected by many factors). This means to be aware of the emotional and physical needs of the baby and to be able to respond to them without your own concerns/issues/problems getting in the way.
- The presence of violence or aggression in the home.
- The availability and quality of other caregivers.
- The availability of practical support.
- The presence of stresses, eg financial, housing.
- Drug and Alcohol misuse in the home.
- The duration of any mental illness (the longer the more effect).
- The presence of mental illness in the father.
- The presence of siblings (this can be a protective factor or can add to the risk).
- The consistency of care.
"I don’t feel connected to my baby"
Some mothers don’t feel bonded to their baby and this can make them feel ashamed and worried. They will usually try and hide these feelings from other people. They may feel very concerned that the baby is well cared for and safe but they have difficulty feeling that the baby is ‘their baby’. They may feel that the baby would be better cared for by someone else.
Anything that is making a person feel numb or frightened can cause them to have difficulty relating to their others, including their baby.
Possible causes of not feeling connected to your baby:
- Often part of depression.
- May result from a traumatic or complicated birth experience.
- Past traumatic experiences.
- Can happen if you are under severe stress.
- Can occur if your baby is/has been unwell.
- Can occur if you have been separated from your baby through hospital admission or NICU (neonatal intensive care)
Feelings can change.
Connected and positive feelings can and do develop.
Relationships develop over time.
Rose gave birth by caesarean section under epidural anaesthetic (she was awake when the baby was born). Four weeks later she said:
“When the baby was born I didn’t feel anything. I looked at her, this little baby, white and messy, but she didn’t feel like mine. I still have trouble feeling she is my baby”.
Maria, “I was so busy I felt I didn’t have time for my baby. It was a horrible time. My husband was working long hours. Looking back on it now I wish I had asked for more help- from everyone, but no not me – I was too proud. I worry that it was the baby who suffered most but she seems a happy wee button now”.
Bowlby J. A Secure Base. Clinical applications of attachment theory. London: Routledge, 1988.
Grossman K, Grossman K, Waters E, eds. Attachment from Infancy to Childhood. The major longitudinal studies. New York: The Guilford Press, 2005.
Karen R. Becoming Attached. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
NICHD Early Child Care Research Network..Child Care and Child Development. Results from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. New York: The Guilford Press, 2005.
Sunderland M. The Science of Parenting. New York: Penguin Group, DK Publishing, 2006.
Winnicott DW. Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment - 3rd Edition. London: Hogarth Press, 1976.
World Association of Infant Mental Health (WAIMH). WAIMH position statements and newsletters, 2003-2007.
Zeanah CH, Jnr. ed. Handbook of Infant Mental Health - 2nd Edition. New York: The Guilford Press, 2000.
Other recommended authors include Alicia Leiberman, Stanley Greenspan, Terry B. Brazelton, Arietta Slade.
See also an excellent Australian website on babies and children, www.raisingchildren.net.au