Child Psychiatry Consult

Managing maternal and infant mental health


An overwhelmed mother presents to your office with her 2-month-old son for his check-up. She seems distant and dysphoric, often shrugging her shoulders with an empty stare when asked about her son’s development. Her baby cries loudly in her arms and you can see that she is uncomfortable soothing him as she frantically rocks him back and forth. He appears to have gained little weight since the last appointment occurring 6 days post partum and his mother describes him as “difficult and fussy all the time.” The father was unable to attend the appointment due to work obligations and often leaves the baby alone with the mother for 10 hours per day. As you examine her son, you counsel the mother on how to care for her baby while also caring for herself. The mother immediately begins to sob into her hands and states: “I can’t do this anymore. I am not meant to be a mother.”

Major depressive disorder with peripartum onset – also known as postpartum depression – is a major public health concern that affects approximately 20% of women in industrial societies like the United States. It is among the most prevalent psychiatric disorders in the world and remains largely underdiagnosed because of lack of access to care, symptom underreporting secondary to stigma, and lack of education regarding illness.1 Adequate treatment of perinatal depression is of paramount importance, as this condition can have significant negative consequences for both mother and child.

Dr. Misty Richards, University of California, Los Angeles

Dr. Misty Richards

Infants raised by depressed mothers show early disruptions in social and emotional development, including diminished security of attachment with their mothers and reduced ability to self-regulate.2 Later in development, the offspring of depressed mothers are at greater risk for psychopathology – most notably anxiety and depression as well as impaired social behavior. 3,4 Rates of depression in school-aged and adolescent children of depressed mothers have been reported to be between 20% and 41%.4 Not only are rates of depression higher, but depression in children of depressed parents, relative to depression in same-age children of nondepressed parents, has an earlier age of onset, longer duration, and is associated with greater functional impairment and risk of relapse.5

In addition, evidence shows that infants of depressed mothers show more negative affect and more self-directed regulatory behaviors, while toddlers show more dysregulated aggression and heightened mood lability.6 Given that these infants also already have an increased genetic risk for depression and anxiety, it is essential that mothers are identified and treated early to prevent these early disruptions to the parent-child relationship.

Pediatricians sit at the intersection of motherhood and infant development. This offers a unique opportunity to influence the trajectory of the child through bolstering supports for the mother. Understandably, time is limited during these brief touchpoints occurring over the first postpartum year, although a heartfelt “How are you?” can make all the difference. In asking this simple question in a disarming way, you may prevent multiple adverse childhood experiences for your tiniest patients.

Further, evidence has shown that toxic stress experienced during sensitive periods of brain development in infants and young children can negatively affect brain architecture. Brain pathways that are rarely used are pruned away, whereas pathways that are readily accessed grow stronger. If children are exposed to toxic stress, whether it be from abuse, mental illness of a caregiver such as severe maternal depression, witnessed domestic violence, or worse, they may begin to experience the world as dangerous and uncertain. This can strengthen connections in parts of the brain associated with fear, arousal, and emotional regulation at the cost of other parts of the brain associated with learning and safety.

Particularly focusing on infancy through preschool, children depend on sensitive, responsive caregivers to learn how to understand emotions and begin to self-soothe. Pediatricians have access to this critical period and can help lead the way toward secure attachment between mother and child. Through taking this dyadic, integrated approach, not only can downstream problems in the child be attenuated or even prevented (that is, disrupted social-emotional development and depression/anxiety), but a mother’s identity can form around her strengths in parenting rather than negative cognitive distortions. Here are some ways to quickly assess a mother for major depressive disorder with peripartum onset so that treatment can be secured, allowing children to develop and learn in a safe, supportive, loving environment:

  • Add a standardized instrument to the check-in process during baby’s first year of life. The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) is the most commonly used screening tool, consisting of 10 questions with a score of 10 or greater suggestive of maternal depression. Recently, it was found that the EPDS may be further abbreviated to a three-question version with a sensitivity of 95% and a negative predictive value of 98%.
  • Dedicate 5 minutes during each appointment to ask the mother, in earnest, how she is doing and to create space to hear her concerns. This high-yield discussion can be the catalyst the mother needs to identify that something is not right.
  • Obtain collateral information from the mother’s partner, if available, in a way that feels collaborative and supportive. You may ask the partner during the appointment if they have any concerns about how both parents are coping with their new parenting roles.
  • If the mother has multiple risk factors for major depressive disorder with peripartum onset – past history of depression, family history of perinatal depression, lack of social supports, or past history of major depressive disorder with peripartum onset with an earlier child (elevating their risk to about 50%) – you may dedicate a bit more time to assess the patient and/or provide mental health resources directly upon wrapping up the appointment.
  • Finally, you may add an educational blurb about major depressive disorder with peripartum onset in all after-visit summaries for new parents and infants with a list of mental health resources that includes reproductive psychiatrists, therapists, and a link to robust resources like Postpartum Support International.

By taking the extra step to leverage the relationship between mother and infant at this highly vulnerable time, you have the ability to positively affect the trajectory of a family. And, at the end of the day, this dyadic approach to patient care is the secret ingredient to improved outcomes all around.


1. Muzik M and Hamilton SE. Matern Child Health J. 2016;20(11):2268-79.

2. Granat A et al. Emotion. 2017;17(1):11-27.

3. Conroy S et al. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2012;51(1):51-61.

4. Goodman SH. Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2007;3:107-35.

5. Keller MB et al. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1986;43(10):930-7.

6. Tronick EZ and Gianino AF. New Dir Child Dev. 1986;34:5-11.

Dr. Richards is assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, program director of the child and adolescent psychiatry fellowship, and associate medical director of the perinatal program at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior in Los Angeles.

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