Possible Effects Of Maternal Depression On Infants’ Cognitive, Social And Emotional Development

Mothers suffering from serious depression are less likely than non-depressed mothers to interact with their infants in joyful, stimulating and positive ways. Instead, they are more likely to demonstrate negative moods around their infants, to exhibit more anxiety, sadness and agitation, to be less playful, to smile and laugh less, to frown more, to lack animation and to speak in a less encouraging and more monotone manner, to be withdrawn, unresponsive and disengaged.


According to Field, infants of depressed mothers start to mimic the maternal behaviour. For example, they demonstrate lower than average of motor activity, are less vocal, are less inclined to make eye-contact and protest more frequently. Field is also of the view that infant’s find the emotional absence of the mother more stressful than her physical absence.

According to Tronick, the mother’s emotional disturbance is essentially ‘transmitted’ to the infant via her dysfunctional interactions with her child.


It has been hypothesized using EEG brain measurements that the activation of the brain’s left and right frontal hemispheres (sides) are involved in the expression of different emotions. For example, according to Dawson, the right frontal area of the brain is relatively more activated when experiencing sadness, disgust and distress whereas the left frontal area of the brain is relatively more activated when experiencing joy and curiosity. As might be guessed from these findings, it has also been found that depression is associated with  increased levels of activity (as measured by EEG) in the brain’s right frontal region whereas happiness is associated with increased levels of activity in the brain’s left frontal region. It therefore follows that depressed mothers increase activation of the infant’s right frontal brain region at the expense of activation of their infant’s left frontal hemisphere.If this pattern of overstimulating the right frontal hemisphere and understimulating the infant’s left hemisphere is ongoing and chronic,


Research suggests the process described above may have long-term adverse effects on:

  • how the child relates to others in general in the future
  • increase the level of stress children feel, leading them to experience more problems at school, both socially and academically
  • suffer from elevated levels of cortisol (sometimes referred to as the ‘stress hormone’) making them emotionally vulnerable, especially under stressful conditions
  • overactivation of the adrenocortical system
  • impaired ability to self-soothe
  • impaired ability to monitor and control his/her emotions which may result in aggressive and self-destructive behaviour
  • the child’s thinking (i.e. a preoccupation with negative thinking)
  • the child’s general emotional state (i.e. a preoccupation with negative emotions)
  • the child’s emotional and cognitive patterns (i.e. rigid and inflexible due to a fear of losing control)

According to Field, the young person may be at greatest risk of being adversely affected by having a depressed mother when s/he is between the ages of 8 and 18 months, whilst Dawson suggests that the presence of a competent, mentally healthy father/partner/caregiver may to some extent protect the infant from the adverse effects on his/her emotional/cognitive/social development that may result from solely being cared for by the depressed mother.


The effects of being primarily cared for by a depressed mother in early life can extend in adolescence (and beyond). However, the relationship between maternal depression and child outcome is complex and involves many factors including the type of depression, when it occurs, how long it lasts and how severe it is. Also, being depressed does not automatically equate to poor parenting.Below is a table (Source: Maternal depression and child development. Paediatr Child Health) showing possible effects on child development from birth to adolescents:

PRENATAL: inadequate prenatal care, poor nutrition, higher preterm birth, low birth weight, pre-elampsia and spontaneous abortion.

INFANT: Anger and protective coping style, passivity, withdrawal, self-regulatory behavior, and dysregulated attention and arousal. Lower cognitive performance.

TODDLER: Passive noncompliance, less mature expression of autonomy, internalizing and externalizing problems, lower interaction, lower creative play, lower cognitive performance..

SCHOOL AGE: Impaired adaptive functioning, internalizing and externalizing problems, affective disorders, anxiety disorders and conduct disorders. Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and lower I.Q. scores.

ADOLESCENT: Affective disorders (depression), anxiety disorders, phobias, panic disorders, conduct disorders, substance abuse and alcohol dependence, attention  deficit/hyperactivity disorder and learning disorders.

Source: Maternal depression and child development. Paediatr Child Health


In the light of continuing research into maternal depression and its effect upon the infant, new ways of treating the mother and her baby are being developed and modified.These include massage therapy, music, yoga, aerobics and visual imagery and other methods with the aim of lifting the mothers’ moods and encouraging more positive interaction with their infants.


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Dawson, G., Hessl, D., & Frey, K. (1994). Social influences on early developing biological and behavioral systems related to risk for affective disorder. Development and Psychopathology, 6(4), 759-779. doi:10.1017/S0954579400004776REFERENCES:

Tiffany Field Ph.D.Maternal Depression Effects on Infants and Early Interventions..Preventive Medicine.Volume 27, Issue 2, March 1998, Pages 200-203

Tronick, E.Z. and Gianino, A.F., Jr. (1986), The transmission of maternal disturbance to the infant. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 1986: 5-11. https://doi.org/10.1002/cd.23219863403
Maternal depression and child development. Paediatr Child Health. 2004;9(8):575-598. doi:10.1093/pch/9.8.575


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About David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

David Hosier MSc holds two degrees (BSc Hons and MSc) and a post-graduate diploma in education (all three qualifications are in psychology). He also holds UK QTS (Qualified Teacher Status). He has worked as a teacher, lecturer and researcher. His own experiences of severe childhood trauma and its emotional fallout motivated him to set up this website, childhoodtraumarecovery.com, for which he exclusively writes articles. He has published several books including The Link Between Childhood Trauma And Borderline Personality Disorder, The Link Between Childhood Trauma ANd Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and  How Childhood Trauma Can Damage The Developing Brain (And How These Effects Can Be Reversed). He was educated at the University of London, Goldsmith’s College where he developed his interest in childhood experiences leading to psychopathology and wrote his thesis on the effects of childhood depression on academic performance. This site has been created for educational purposes only.

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