Monday, January 14, 2013

Maternal Depression

This week I'm taking a detour from talking about sign language for babies in order to address a very important topic: Maternal depression. Research shows that mothers who suffer from depression for extended periods during a child’s early years put their children at greater risk for emotional problems. There are many reasons for this greater vulnerability. One of them is the fact that depressed mothers are much less likely to engage in the lively face-to-face interaction that is so critical to helping babies feel secure and loved during their first year.

We know that the absence of this kind of interaction is upsetting to babies because of research by Professor Ed Tronick. In his classic study called “the Still Face” experiment, he first filmed parents and infants interacting face to face in whatever way was normal for them. After a bit of time had passed, the parents were instructed to assume a totally frozen face—neither smiling nor scowling—and remain totally passive and unresponsive to any bids for attention from the baby. The result? Babies as young as 4 months turned out to be exquisitely sensitive to the disruption and quickly become despondent when the disruption continued for more than a moment or two. Interestingly, the babies seemed to understand when Mom turned away to talk to someone else; it was when there seemed to be no good reason for the disruption that they became disheartened. Under those conditions, they seemed to perceive their mother’s behavior as rejection, and with that perception came the fear that they had lost their hold on a safe and predictable world.

As Professor Tronick points out, if a momentary “still face” in the laboratory can cause a baby to become despondent, just think what happens when such rejection occurs on a daily basis. Human babies crave interaction, and when it’s missing for long periods of time and they feel powerless to restore it, they become depressed too.

The research on the dangers of maternal depression has been pivotal in directing attention to the phenomenon of post-partum depression, a biologically-based reaction to giving birth that used to be considered totally psychological—that is, the fault of the mother—and treated with advice that inevitably made these new moms feel more guilty and more depressed. Fortunately, doctors now understand that post-partum depression is a real and serious phenomenon that needs attention.

Professor Tronick’s work, therefore, provides a good example of how research investigating the intricacies of development and the parent-child relationship often has profoundly positive effects on the lives of babies and their parents. That's research money well spent!

Happy Signing (and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook)!

Linda Acredolo, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, UC Davis
Co-Founder, The Baby Signs® Program
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