How Post Natal Depression Changes Your Baby’s Brain

This is not an easy post to write. The last thing I want is for people to feel guilty and responsible for having Post-Natal Depression. No parent chooses to suffer from depression and every parent wants the best for their child, so writing about the effect a parent’s depression can have on their child’s development seems cruel and unfair.

I’m writing this because I want to help parents provide the best environment for their child to grow and thrive.  Our health system is currently heavily over-stretched and the sad truth is, mental health is rarely a priority when allocating healthcare funds. So now, more than ever, it is important to talk about just how serious PND can be, and the long-lasting impact it carries.

In the first two years of a child’s life, more new brain pathways are being formed than at any other time in their future. It is a very vulnerable time because, everything that happens in these two years affects the child’s brain development. It affects a child’s behaviour and learning, and according to more recent evidence, the actual size of certain brain structures (1). The foundations laid down in these two years will have an impact on your child’s school years, adolescence and adult achievements.

Having depression makes parents less likely to pick up on signals from “serve and return interactions”. These are moments where your baby “serves” you a signal (through eye contact, cooing, crying or gesturing) and you “return” the signal through some kind of reciprocal response (a cuddle, funny face, mimicry etc.). It is through these “serve and return” experiences that babies, start to understand how the world around them works, how problems are solved and how relationships are formed. This becomes their foundation for all future learning and social skills.

When you are living life through the fog of depression you are less likely pick up on subtle “servings” from your child, and if you do see a signal, you may be less motivated to respond. This affects the message your child receives about how to communicate with the world in order to get a response. While you don’t have to respond to every single serving from your child, persistent lack of response can result in attachment disorders, concentration difficulties and even a delay in motor skills (2).


Don’t despair, there is hope. The most important thing is to first seek out treatment for the depression that sits at the root of all these problems. We have very effective treatments for post natal depression, so don’t think that it is something you have to muddle through indefinitely. The earlier it is treated, the more successful the treatment is.

Secondly, get some help. The only way your baby is going to get the best version of you, is if you give yourself the time nad space to heal. Knowing that someone you trust is with your child will give you the peace of mind to focus on your recovery.

Once you’ve made it out of the fog and into the sunshine, go shopping! Yes go on a toy shopping spree for the types of toys that will help your baby develop the nerve pathways. There is no deadline with brain development. Our brains are constantly growing and stretching, and with the right stimulation, your baby’s brain will just slip into gear and start developing the connections it needs.  Toys that require turn taking, two people to play a different role and toys that have a cause and effect (eg,. Press a button and a light comes on) are a great way of regaining some of the ground lost through the months of missed “Save and return” interactions.

This week is UK Maternal Mental Health Matters Awareness Week. Visit the Maternal Mental Health Alliance or follow #maternalMHmatters and #PNDhour to find out more and join the conversation about Post-Natal Depression.


  1. Influences of prenatal and postnatal maternal depression on amygdala volume and microstructure in young children. D J Wen1, J S Poh2 et al, Translational Psychiatry(2017) 7, e1103; doi:10.1038/tp.2017.74
    Published online 25 April 2017
  2. Effects of postnatal depression on infant development. MURRAY L, COOPER PJ. Archives of Disease in Childhood 1997;77:99-101.

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