The Effect of Postpartum Depression on Child Development: A Look At Some Studies

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Postpartum Depression

Before we address effect of postpartum depression on child development, let’s list a few salient facts about this disorder. Postpartum depression effects around 13% of women within one year of giving birth. Research suggests that the effect of postpartum depression on child development to be related to the relationship of the mother and infant. In some studies of young children whose mothers had postpartum depression, it has been suggested that the children have increased cognitive, behavioral, and interpersonal problems than mothers who did not have postpartum depression. It has been said that recurrent episodes of maternal depression or extended exposure to postpartum depression may have a long term effect on a child.

Is cognitive functioning effected by postpartum depression?

In a study published in BMJ (vol292, May 3, 1986), one hundred and nineteen mothers giving birth for the first time at the obstetric clinic of London teaching hospital were observed over an extended time up to four years after birth. At the time of the child’s fourth birthday, ninety-nine women remained in the study. At the age of four, the children were assessed using the McCathy scales from the comfort of their home by a psychologist to measure cognitive functioning without knowing if the mother suffered from any mental health issues. The test measured verbal, perceptual, quantitative memory and motor skills. Four of the tests could not be completed due to circumstances beyond control.

The girls seemed to do slightly better than the boys, as did kids who grew up in middle and professional families, as opposed to those whose parents were working class. The children who had a mother achieved at least an “A” level in school did better than those that didn’t. Troubles in marriage sand paternal psychiatric problems were connected in receiving lower cognitive scores as well. Convincing intellectual deficiencies were observed in children whose mothers had depression, but only when the mother was depressed in the child’s first year of life.

The evidence collected suggests that children whose mothers suffered postpartum depression may develop more slowly because they also come from economically disadvantaged homes. Women who had troubles in marriage during pregnancy were also more likely to have the same trouble with their child at the age of four. The study concludes that the effect of postpartum depression on child development is long term rather than short lived.

Can a mother’s pitch make a difference in development?

Peter S. Kaplan, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Denver said: “We found that depressed mothers who were trying to interest their infants in a toy - a stuffed gorilla - said the word ‘gorilla’ in a voice with relatively flat pitch. This raised the possibility that infants, who are known to react more strongly to speech high in pitch modulation, would not learn well about the world around them when prompted with speech uttered by depressed caregivers." He suggests that this may give reason to why those children of depressed mothers perform not so well on standard test of child development.

In a study conducted by Kaplan, Jo-Anne Bachorowski of Vanderbilt University and Patricia Zarlengo-Strouse of the University of Colorado at Denver, the reearchers examined 225 four month olds, testing their associative learning basics. During the research the infants heard a woman telling them, “Pet the gorilla,” and then saw a picture of a lady smiling. To see if the infants could associate the womans face with the previously heard voice, the researchers introduced a checkerboard pattern while the voice was being played.

Infants who heard women with low to mode level depression spent more time observing the checkerboard pattern as to those who listened to severely depressed women. Women who did not suffer major depression changed the pitch of their voice over an increased range, while the others were more monotone.

Researchers believe the pitch of the womens’ voices cause the infants to experience a state of arousal. During that time, infants process more information effectively. The depressed women lacks in acoustic qualities that aid in the arousal to process information completely.


1. Psychosocial Paediatrics Committee, Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS). Maternal depression and child development

2. Science Daily (May 25, 2009) Mother’s Depression Impedes Baby’s Development.

3. The British Journal of Psychiatry (2003) 182: 420-427. 2003 The Royal College of Psychiatrists. Controlled trial of the short- and long-term effect of psychological treatment of post-partum depression.

4. Stewart, D.E., Robertson, E., Dennis, C-L., Grace, S.L., & Wallington, T. (2003). Postpartum depression:

Literature review of risk factors and interventions

5. S R Cogill, H L Caplan, H Alexandra, K M Robson, R Kumar Volume 292, Number 6529 BMJ 1986;Impact of maternal postnatal depression on cognitive development of young children.