Can Treating Depressed Mothers Affect the Brains of their Babies?

Can Treating Depressed Mothers Affect the Brains of their Babies?

By Jim Windell

           Researchers have been studying the effects of maternal depression on children since about the mid-1980s. The results of this research are clear and consistent: Children who live with a chronically depressed mother are at risk for many adverse effects, including cognitive, social and academic functioning. These consistent findings suggest that there is a negative impact on the developing brains of infants.

           But if mothers with postpartum depression are treated, can this actually change the brains of their babies?

           The result of a recent study says the brains of infants can be affected in a positive way when mothers receive treatment.

           The study, published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, described the research involving 40 infants of women diagnosed with postpartum depression. A control group consisted of 40 infants of non-depressed mothers who were matched based on infant age, gender and socioeconomic status. The mothers with postpartum depression received nine weeks of group Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). The infants were all tested before the treatment and nine weeks later, including a questionnaire on the infant behavior completed by the mother and her partner.

           The results of the research by a team from McMasters University, located in Hamilton, Canada, indicate that after the mothers' treatment, their infants showed healthy changes in their nervous and cardiovascular systems. In addition, they were observed to be better able to regulate their behaviors and emotions as reported by both mothers and fathers.

           "In fact, we found that after their moms were treated that their infant's brain activity normalized to the levels seen in our healthy infants," said Ryan Van Lieshout, senior author of the study, a psychiatrist, and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural neuroscience at McMaster's Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine.

           Van Lieshout added that it is well-known that the children of women with postpartum depression have changes in the functioning of their brains that make it more likely that they will develop emotional and behavioral problems later in life. However, it had not been known before if treating the mother's postpartum depression could reverse these changes.

           "We believe that this is the first time that anyone has shown that treating moms' postpartum depression can lead to healthy changes in the physiology of the brains of their infants, a finding that we think provides a lot of good news," Van Lieshout said.

           This study shows that CBT, which tends to sort-term and cost-effective, can potentially reduce the intergenerational transmission of adverse effects for a mother who experiences postpartum depression.

           To read the journal article, find it at:

John E. Krzeczkowski, Louis A. Schmidt, & Ryan J. Van Lieshout. Changes in infant emotion regulation following maternal cognitive behavioral therapy for postpartum depression. Depression and Anxiety, 2021; DOI: 10.1002/da.23130


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