Maternal Mental Health

It is estimated that depression will be the number one cause of disability in both the developed and developing worlds by 2030 (WHO 2008). Mental health is not simply an absence of mental illness it is; “a state of emotional and psychological well being in which an individual is able to use his or her cognitive and emotional capability, function in society and meet the ordinary demands of everyday life.” (WHO 2001)

  • 1 in 5 Australians experience a mental illness within a 12 month period (ABS National Survey of Mental Health and wellbeing of Adults 1997)

  • Depression is the 4th most common problem managed in General Practice. (Britt, H. Et al 2005)

  • Postnatal Depression affects almost 16% of first time mothers in Australia (Beyond Blue 2009)

  • Baby Blues affect 80% of women

  • 9.7% of Australians have an anxiety disorder

  • Prevalence of anxiety is between 18-50 yrs

  • 40% of women with anxiety have additional Mental Health issues

  • An average of 2.1 days per month were reported as ‘out of role days’ e.e. 2.7 million persons per month.

  • Anxiety and depression can significantly impact on all aspects of daily life.

Maternal Mental Health impact on Children

Mother’s mental health impacts on emotional, cognitive and social development of a child. Studies have shown that maternal anxiety is related to negative effects on attachment, increased incidence of illness and behaviour disturbances of a newborn. Antenatal anxiety can also effects foetal development, infant temperament and psychological and cognitive outcomes in childhood and adolescence.

Brain and biological development during the first years of life in highly influenced by an infant’s environment. Birth to three yrs of age is the most important phase for overall development throughout the life span. Early experiences determine health, education and economic participation for the rest of our lives. Many challenges faced by adults, such as mental health issues, obesity, heart disease, criminality, poor literacy and numeracy can be traced back to early childhood experiences (WHO 20009)

Early Brain Development

Early childhood is the most intense period of brain development. Language and cognitive development is most important in the first 6 months to 3 yrs of life. Adequate nutrition and stimulation is essential. Absence of attachment results in negative effects on brain development and cognitive function. Antenatal research shows physical changes to foetal cerebral ventricle structure of women experiencing antenatal stress and anxiety. (Hollings, K. 2007)

Maternal Mental Health Study

A study on maternal mental health and its impact on child behaviour and development carried out in Scotland by Louise Marryat and Claudia Martin with over 3000 mothers. These mothers were assessed for 4 points within 10-46 months after the child was born.

  • Almost 1/3 of all the mothers interviewed experienced poor mental health at some point in the four years after the birth of the baby being observed for the survey.

  • Between 12 -16% of the mothers experienced mental health difficulties

  • 67% of mothers who reported mental health issues early in the study had subsequent mental health issues

  • Mental health difficulties were associated with a mother’s social circumstances: those who experienced poverty and those living in an area of deprivation were most likely to experience brief and repeated mental health problems

  • Repeated mental health problems where additionally associated with reported relationship difficulties.

Effect on Children:
  • Attachment issues - less efforts to engage with mothers who were non responsive to their infants

  • Poor relationship with their peer at age 3

  • Frequent temper tantrums

  • Child often lies or cheats

Causes of Maternal Stress:
  • Hormonal changes – can be exacerbated by pre-existing conditions

  • Little family support – from grandparents

  • Financial stress

  • Returning to work – childcare

  • Isolation

  • Competitive coffee mums

  • Crying, unsettled baby


It was clear that children with mothers who were free from mental health problems were more likely to have more positive outcomes and that those children whose mothers had persistent mental health problems had the poorest outcomes. Maternal mental health was associated with socio-economic disadvantage, impoverished interpersonal relationships and with poor social support.

What can be done:
  • Find some guidance – contact your Early Childhood centre, family GP

  • Gain assistance and advice for unsettled baby, nutrition and play ideas

  • Look for positive ways to stimulate and interact with baby

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for support – from family and friends

  • Access mental health support systems - talk about your problem with a trained counsellor

Mental Health Agents

Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636 Gidget Foundation: 1300 726 306


Kerry Harley RN RMW CAFHN Grad. Cert. Mental Health(Adult)

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All articles on this website have a copyright.  The use of any material must have permission from Cradle 2 Kindy Parenting Solutions.

Disclaimer: Articles on our website are for education purposes only.  Please consult with your doctor to make sure this information is right for your child.