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Buzzwords Explained: Perinatal Mental Health

Key Takeaways

  • As many as one in five birthing parents struggle with a mental health disorder.
  • Because babies and toddlers grow up in the context of relationships, the mental health of their parents and caregivers is inextricably linked to a baby’s development during these critical early years.  
  • Research has shown that specific community supports and treatment are extremely effective in improving perinatal mental health outcomes.
Because babies and toddlers grow up in the context of relationships, the mental health of their parents and caregivers is inextricably linked to a baby’s development during these critical early years.
expert insight from:

Khanh H. Nguyen, MSW, MPH

Khanh is a Senior Policy Analyst for ZERO TO THREE with expertise in maternal and child health and health policy.

What is perinatal mental health?

Take a moment to envision a parent with their newborn baby. For many of us, a stock image of a serene scene comes to mind — mother and child snuggled up, bonding, getting to know one another. The baby, forming millions of neural pathways each minute, begins to understand the world around them based on these nurturing experiences and stimuli.  

But this calm, serene bonding doesn’t always happen easily. As many as one in five birthing parents struggle with a mental health disorder, which can stem from various causes like family history, brain chemistry, chronic medical problems, or stressful life experiences like trauma, abuse or economic hardship. 

Perinatal mental health generally refers to the mental health of a parent during pregnancy and the first 12 months after delivery, though non-birthing parents, foster parents and adoptive parents can also struggle with behavioral health concerns during the early months of a child’s life.  

When those early bonding moments are hampered by a caregiver’s poor mental health, it can affect a baby’s early development.

For example, a parent who is battling postpartum depression during the perinatal period may not be able to respond to and interact with their baby as much as they would like to. Without proper supports, even simple tasks like feeding, bathing, and attending routine doctor’s appointments become overwhelming. Perinatal mental health is woven into every aspect of a child’s early life.

Did you know?

Parental mental illness is considered an adverse childhood experience (ACE).

How does perinatal mental health affect babies and toddlers?

The first three years of life set the stage for lifelong success. Because babies and toddlers grow up in the context of relationships, the mental health of their parents and caregivers is inextricably linked to a baby’s development during these critical early years.  

When a parent struggles with anxiety or depression during pregnancy or after birth it can alter a baby’s:

  • Social and emotional development  
  • Attachment and bonding  
  • Physical health  
  • Stress and trauma responses 

An infant with a healthy attachment to a caregiver will have positive outcomes in the areas of: 

  • Trusting  
  • Learning  
  • Thinking  
  • Modulating emotions  
  • Developing future relationships 

Healthy parents are less likely to be reported for maltreatment and to otherwise come into contact with the child welfare system. Some families, particularly Black and Indigenous families, face ongoing community violence and institutional racism that increase the risk of developing mental health conditions, while at the same time being less likely to receive care. This can compound already elevated rates of child welfare reporting and removal. 

Is pregnancy an optimal time to treat maternal depression?
Adverse childhood experiences begin even before birth. Early childhood professionals are key to making a lifelong impact starting in the early years of development.

Unaddressed parental mental health challenges may increase the likelihood of involvement in the child welfare system. In her work with Safe Babies, Marshalle works to promote parental and caregiver mental health during the perinatal period and prevent child welfare involvement.

That doesn’t mean that every baby who has a parent struggling during the perinatal period will have a negative outcome, though.

Research has shown that specific community supports and treatment are extremely effective in improving perinatal mental health outcomes. They even reduce the rate of child welfare involvement. Our policy center is hard at work advocating for those proven strategies:  

  • Pushing to expand adult Medicaid coverage and extend pregnancy-related Medicaid coverage until a child’s first birthday so that the mother can access mental health services throughout the perinatal period.  
  • Advocating for expanded access to home visiting and doula care, which are both shown to reduce negative perinatal mental health outcomes.  
  • Addressing racial disparities within the perinatal mental healthcare system — Black and brown women are more likely to struggle with perinatal mood disorders, but less likely to have access to services.  
  • Improving universal screening tools and procedures so that doctors and community healthcare workers can identify parents who need help — and connect them to that help.  

Promoting positive perinatal mental health in two key areas:

Within the Child Welfare System

Safe Babies works to help professionals foster positive mental health for both parents and children, so that communities and states can address trauma and align support through various family-serving systems such as child welfare, mental health, and education. 

Inside the Pediatrician's Office

As one of its many initiatives of elevating the promise of pediatric care, HealthySteps requires universal screenings for maternal depression in pediatric primary care settings. This creates more opportunities for prevention and encourages treatment by providing families with referrals and offering close follow-up and support.

A graphic promoting the ZERO TO THREE Conference for early childhood professionals.
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