Maternal Depression and Anxiety, Social Synchrony, and Infant Regulation of Negative and Positive Emotions

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Abstract

Maternal postpartum depression (PPD) exerts long-term negative effects on infants; yet the mechanisms by which PPD disrupts emotional development are not fully clear. Utilizing an extreme-case design, 971 women reported symptoms of depression and anxiety following childbirth and 215 high and low on depressive symptomatology reported again at 6 months. Of these, mothers diagnosed with major depressive disorder (n = 22), anxiety disorders (n = 19), and controls (n = 59) were visited at 9 months. Mother-infant interaction was microcoded for maternal and infant’s social behavior and synchrony. Infant negative and positive emotional expression and self-regulation were tested in 4 emotion-eliciting paradigms: anger with mother, anger with stranger, joy with mother, and joy with stranger. Infants of depressed mothers displayed less social gaze and more gaze aversion. Gaze and touch synchrony were lowest for depressed mothers, highest for anxious mothers, and midlevel among controls. Infants of control and anxious mothers expressed less negative affect with mother compared with stranger; however, maternal presence failed to buffer negative affect in the depressed group. Maternal depression chronicity predicted increased self-regulatory behavior during joy episodes, and touch synchrony moderated the effects of PPD on infant self-regulation. Findings describe subtle microlevel processes by which maternal depression across the postpartum year disrupts the development of infant emotion regulation and suggest that diminished social synchrony, low differentiation of attachment and nonattachment contexts, and increased self-regulation during positive moments may chart pathways for the cross-generational transfer of emotional maladjustment from depressed mothers to their infants.

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