The ripple effect of maternal depression and anxiety

Depression and anxiety can take a terrible toll. But when these disorders affect mothers, children feel the impact too.

Research Summary

  • Children exposed to maternal depression and anxiety may experience worse development.
  • Maternal depression and anxiety impacts physical, social, and emotional outcomes the most.

What is the research about?

Research shows maternal depression and anxiety harms a child’s development.

It can result in:

  • higher stress response
  • negative temperament
  • social, emotional, and behavioural problems
  • impaired cognition
  • worse physical health

A University of Manitoba study looked at how the timing, recurrence, and severity of maternal depression and anxiety affect child development.

What did the researchers do?

The researchers studied 18,331 children born between 2000-2001.

The study used Early Development Instrument (EDI) scores to measure child development. Researchers linked children’s valid EDI scores with their birth mothers’ health information.

Researchers examined several features of maternal depression and anxiety:

  • time of occurrence
    • prenatal year
    • postnatal year
    • toddler period
    • and the year before EDI collection
  • recurrence
    • the number of time periods a mother visited their doctor or received a prescription for depression and anxiety
  • severity
    • the total number of times a mother visited their doctor or received a prescription for depression and anxiety

The researchers also took into account a child’s health at birth and family situation (e.g., lone parenthood).

What did the researchers find?

Roughly half of all mothers visited a doctor at least once for depression or anxiety. Almost a third received a prescription for an antidepressant. But mothers did so less in the prenatal and postnatal periods.

Maternal depression and anxiety was most strongly associated with worse physical, social, and emotional outcomes.

Recurring depression and anxiety had a stronger association with child outcomes than timing and severity. Recurring depression and anxiety may interfere with a mother’s ability to sensitively and consistently care for her child over time.

Prenatal depression and anxiety was more strongly associated with poorer outcomes than other time periods.

Although maternal depression and anxiety played a role in child development, family challenges (e.g., teen mother, lone parent, low SES) played a larger role.

What does this research mean?

Interventions for maternal depression and anxiety should begin during pregnancy and continue through early childhood.

Interventions should pay close attention to supporting physical, social, and emotional health. Focusing on families with challenges such as lone parenthood may be most effective.