E tūtaki ana ngā kapua o te rangi, kei runga, kei runga te Mangoroa e kōpae pū ana | The clouds in the sky close over, but above them spreads the milky way


Many mothers worry that their depression or anxiety will affect their baby.

Can depression or anxiety affect the baby?

Our babies need us to be able to respond to their needs and cues, in order to know the world is a safe place, and to create what we call a ‘secure attachment’ to you. Secure attachment has many benefits for our babies and growing children; children who grow up securely attached believe the world is a good place, knowing you are there for them in times of need. They do better in child care and in school and turn themselves into better parents.

Many mothers who are battling PND worry that their depression or anxiety will affect their baby and this attachment. This worry is understandable, however it does not need to be the case.

The manner your PND will affect your baby, depends on how well you can respond to their needs. Many mothers with depression or anxiety can and do respond appropriately to their baby – and always remember – you do not need to be perfect! You cannot always respond immediately every time your baby cries or needs you, what is important is the overall balance of sensitivity and responsiveness; responding most of the time, this way establishing in your baby what we call secure attachment. Responding most of the time is called ‘good enough parenting’. This is the best any of us can hope to achieve. We cannot respond every time, and that is OK!


However, if you find yourself unable to meet your baby’s needs most of the time, or consistently unable to understand what the needs are, as you are feeling too overwhelmed, depressed or anxious, it is time to seek help, to prevent any effect on your baby. Furthermore, many parents who were depressed for a time, were unable to respond appropriately to their babies’ needs and cues. But once they heal and they can do this – the damage is repaired if done early enough. Another huge reason to get help early.

If you find yourself unable to take care of your baby and heed to their cues – it is important to find another adult in your environment that can do that – this will be extremely protective for your baby’s mental health until you heal and can do it yourself.

To help you get to know your baby and read their cues better, so you can respond, here are some hints to get to know what your baby is trying to tell you.

Baby cues

These say “I want to interact” or “I’m interested”: your baby wants you to smile and talk to them, (some young babies love a high pitched voice), and they all love it when you sing to them, tell them about your day, read them a book, play peekaboo. Nappy changing times are golden opportunities for all of these interactions.

Shown by baby as:

  • Smiling.
  • Looking at caregiver’s face.
  • Smooth movements of arms and legs (usually to the caregiver).
  • Eyes wide, bright and focused.
  • Bright face.

Disengaging cues

These say “I need a break” or “I’ve had enough”. After a time of interaction, babies can get tired and need a break, some space for themselves. It is important to respect this and let them have a rest from interacting with them.

Shown by baby as:

  • Looking away from caregiver or object
  • Frown
  • Fussiness (low pitched vocalisation- not rhythmical)
  • Pushing away hands
  • Pulling body away creating a distance from caregiver or object
  • Dull looking eyes and face

Hunger cues

These say “I’m hungry, can I have some food please”. Especially in the early days, the sooner you react, the less crying and the less stress for everyone.

Shown by baby as:

  • Clenched fingers and fists over chest and tummy.
  • Bending arms and legs up.
  • Mouthing.
  • Rooting.

Soothing a Baby

Each baby is different so try to work out what works best for your baby. Here are some methods to try to help soothe your baby:

  • Pick up your baby and rock or walk with her.
  • Take your baby for a walk with a front pack/carrier or a ride in pram or car. Don’t worry about people judging you if your baby cries, they won’t! And most babies stop crying when they are out in the fresh air and in motion, especially if they are on you.
  • ‘Windy’ babies may be more comfortable in a more upright position.
  • Talk to your baby in a steady, soft voice.
  • Sing, hum or croon to your baby.
  • Put some music and dance gently with your baby.
  • Wrap baby snugly; some like it, some hate it.
  • Try a nice warm bath.
  • If someone else is around, try handing out your baby to them for a while, and take a break!

“I don’t feel connected to my baby”

Some mothers don’t feel bonded to their baby and this can make them feel ashamed and worried. They will usually try and hide these feelings from other people. They may feel very concerned that the baby is well cared for and safe but they have difficulty feeling that the baby is ‘their baby’. They may feel that the baby would be better cared for by someone else.

Anything that is making a person feel numb or frightened can cause them to have difficulty relating to their others, including their baby.

Possible causes of not feeling connected to your baby:

  • Pick up your baby and rock or walk with her.
  • Often part of depression.
  • May result from a traumatic or complicated birth experience.
  • Past traumatic experiences.
  • Can happen if you are under severe stress.
  • Can occur if your baby is/has been unwell.
  • Can occur if you have been separated from your baby through hospital admission or NICU (neonatal intensive care)


  • Feelings can change.
  • Connected and positive feelings can and do develop.
  • Relationships develop over time.

Rose gave birth by caesarean section under epidural anaesthetic (she was awake when the baby was born). Four weeks later she said:

“When the baby was born, I didn’t feel anything. I looked at her, this little baby, white and messy, but she didn’t feel like mine. I still have trouble feeling she is my baby. I was so busy I felt I didn’t have time for my baby. It was a horrible time. My husband was working long hours. Looking back on it now I wish I had asked for more help – from everyone, but no not me – I was too proud. I worry that it was the baby who suffered most but she seems a happy wee button now.”


Bowlby J. A Secure Base. Clinical applications of attachment theory. London: Routledge, 1988.
Grossman K, Grossman K, Waters E, eds. Attachment from Infancy to Childhood. The major longitudinal studies. New York: The Guilford Press, 2005.
Karen R. Becoming Attached. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
NICHD Early Child Care Research Network..Child Care and Child Development. Results from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. New York: The Guilford Press, 2005.
Sunderland M. The Science of Parenting. New York: Penguin Group, DK Publishing, 2006.
Winnicott DW. Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment – 3rd Edition. London: Hogarth Press, 1976.
World Association of Infant Mental Health (WAIMH). WAIMH position statements and newsletters, 2003-2007.
Zeanah CH, Jnr. ed. Handbook of Infant Mental Health – 2nd Edition. New York: The Guilford Press, 2000.
Other recommended authors include Alicia Leiberman, Stanley Greenspan, Terry B. Brazelton, Arietta Slade.

See also an excellent New Zealand website on babies and children; www.raisingchildren.org.nz