The impact of postpartum depression and anxiety disorders on children’s processing of facial emotional expressions at pre-school age

Abstract

To enhance understanding of impaired socio-emotional development in children of postpartum depressed or anxious mothers, this longitudinal study addressed the question of whether maternal postpartum depression and anxiety disorders result in deficits in children’s processing of facial emotional expressions (FEEs) at pre-school age. Thirty-two mothers who had fulfilled Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV) criteria for postpartum depression and/or anxiety disorder and their pre-school aged children were tested for FEE processing abilities and compared to a healthy control group (n = 29). Child assessments included separate tasks for emotion recognition and emotion labelling. Mothers completed an emotion recognition test as well as the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV Axis I Disorders I (SCID-I). Children of postpartum depressed and/or anxious mothers performed significantly worse than control children at labelling, but not at recognizing facial expressions of basic emotions. Emotion labelling at pre-school age was predicted by child age and maternal postpartum mental health, but neither current maternal mental health nor current maternal emotion recognition was associated with child FEE processing. Results point to a specific importance of early social experiences for the development of FEE labelling skills. However, further studies involving sensitive measures of emotion recognition are needed to determine if there might also exist subtle effects on FEE recognition.

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Acknowledgments

The study was supported by grants from the Koehler and Jung Foundation and the Jacobs Foundation. We would like to thank the mothers participating in the study as well as the maternity clinics and their staff in Heidelberg and Darmstadt for their willingness to cooperate and for their support of this research project.

Conflict of interest

The authors report no conflicts of interest, including specific financial interests and relationships and affiliations relevant to the subject of our manuscript.

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Meiser, S., Zietlow, AL., Reck, C. et al. The impact of postpartum depression and anxiety disorders on children’s processing of facial emotional expressions at pre-school age. Arch Womens Ment Health 18, 707–716 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00737-015-0519-y

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Keywords

  • Postpartum depression
  • Postpartum anxiety disorders
  • Emotion recognition
  • Emotion labelling
  • Pre-school children