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Impact of Maternal Depression on Attachment and Child Development: A Los Angeles County Perspective and Recommendations

A woman’s mental health can have negative consequences on a child as early as pregnancy. Exposure to depression and anxiety during pregnancy may result in infants that are more irritable and less able to respond to stress.

by Christina Nigrelli, Senior Director of Programs, ZERO TO THREE Western Office and Jenifer Chacon, Senior Writer/Training Specialist, ZERO TO THREE Western Office
With special thanks to Cindy Oser, Director, I-ECHMH Strategy, ZERO TO THREE

Science has shown that babies’ brains form more than one million neural connections each secondi. Those connections and positive relationships lay the foundation for future healthy development.

A child’s emotional health refers to a child’s capacity to form close and secure adult and peer relationships and to experience, manage, and express a full range of emotionsii. Maternal depression can impair the healthy development of infants and young children. Maternal depression can also affect the parent-child relationship. Because a child’s emotional health, and a strong parent–child attachment or “bond,” provide the foundation for healthy development throughout life, maternal depression can have long-lasting impact on infant and early childhood mental health.

A woman’s mental health can have negative consequences on a child as early as pregnancy. Exposure to depression and anxiety during pregnancy may result in infants that are more irritable and less able to respond to stress. For newborn infants, having a mother with depression impacts the bonding and attachment that should naturally develop. This attachment permits children to develop trust and confidence as well as the ability to regulate stress and distress. A disrupted attachment is at the root of many behavioral and psychiatric disorders for children. Children of mothers with untreated depression may go on to experience early cognitive developmental delays and poor academic performance. The risk of child abuse and neglect also increases when maternal depression goes untreated, resulting in the overrepresentation of infants and young children born to women with untreated depression in the child welfare systemiii,iv.

ZERO TO THREE and Maternal Mental Health NOW have partnered to address the adverse effects of maternal depression on the overall development of infants and young children.

Together they convened leaders throughout Los Angeles County to move forward collaborative solutions for perinatal mental health and offered recommendations. The recommendations included:

  • Develop and implement a sustainable perinatal psychiatry consultation line for medical providers
  • Institutionalize maternal mental health training for all sectors that interact with expectant and new mothers
  • Incorporate Maternal Mental Health NOW’s Resource Directory into county referral systems
  • Strengthen and expand the integration of perinatal mental health into countywide home visitation programs
  • Spread the integration of perinatal mental health care into medical settings
  • Promote systems for maternal mental health screening and referral in all pre- and postnatal care settings, including health and human service settings
  • Promote perinatal mental health for women experiencing homelessness in the homeless service system (Coordinated Entry System and Continuum of Care)
  • Continue to develop and spread culturally informed support groups, including peer-based models for pregnant mothers and new parents
  • Implement culturally and linguistically appropriate public awareness campaign to reduce stigma around maternal mental health

To learn more about maternal mental health and these recommendations view “Moving Forward: Collaborative Solutions for Perinatal Mental Health in Los Angeles County”.


i Available at: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/brain-architecture
ii ZERO TO THREE. (2017). The basics of infant and early childhood mental health. Available at https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/1951-the-basics-of-infant-and-early-childhood-mental-health
iii Lovejoy, M. C., Graczyk, P. A., O’Hare, E., & Neuman, G. (2000). Maternal depression and parenting behavior: A meta-analytic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 20(5), 561–592.
iv Onunaku, N. (2005). Improving maternal and infant mental health: Focus on maternal depression. Los Angeles, CA: National Center for Infant and Early Childhood Health Policy at UCLA.

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