How mothers calm their distressed infants with soothing signals: How postpartum depression disrupts the process

Most parents know it even if they can’t prove it: When a baby becomes distressed, its mother has a unique power to soothe and calm the infant with little more than a loving embrace and some tender words.

To the lay person, it’s one of life’s mysteries — operating almost as if by magic — and not even in the research fields of pediatrics and behavioural neuroscience is the process well understood.

The story is also different for new mothers who experience post-partum depression (PPD), which affects up to 20% of people who give birth.

“Myriad studies have shown that mothers with postpartum depression struggle calming their distressed babies,” says John Krzeczkowski, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology and with the LaMarsh Centre for Child and Youth Research. “However, it is not known how mothers’ soothing signals are transmitted to their baby, how postpartum depression disrupts this process, or if treating depressed mothers can alter these signals.

“To investigate this, my team and I examined links between mother and infant physiology when babies were distressed.”

Krzeczkowski is the lead author of “Follow the leader: Maternal transmission of physiological regulatory support to distressed infants in real-time,” published today in the Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Science.

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