Depression in Babies and Young Infants

Could you ever imagine a tiny baby being depressed? Although hard to believe, researchers have noted classic signs of depression in young babies, even those under the age of six months.

Although most people associate the occurrence of depression with a series of negative life events, it has now been recognized that even babies as young as three months can display symptoms of depression. In particular, infants of depressed mothers exhibit depressive behaviors, such as a lack of responsiveness and interaction with others, lack of interest in their environment, unhappy facial expressions (as opposed to outright crying), and slow movements. These behaviors are present even when the baby is interacting with a non-depressed person.

At this stage, it is unknown as to whether the depression experienced by these infants is due to a genetic tendency towards depression or whether it is the result of early interaction with a depressed parent. The phenomenon may well be a combination of both.

In cases where the new mother is suffering from postnatal depression, it can be beneficial for both mother and infant to spend time apart for a part of each week, so that both may benefit from interacting with others. In the case of the seemingly depressed infant, this approach could be crucial to their subsequent social and emotional development.

Between the ages of birth and around three years of age, the symptoms of clinical depression are listed as:

  1. sad or expressionless face, noted aversion of gaze, regular staring
  2. restricted social play
  3. feeding problems
  4. sleeping problems
  5. tantrums, irritability
  6. lethargy, lack of interest in peer activity
  7. separation anxiety and attachment problems

Note that all infants will display these behaviors during this initial three year period, particularly if suffering from a physical illness. Where these symptoms occur as a cluster and over a sustained period of time (for example three months, infant depression may be suspected and certainly medical intervention and psychological testing should be sought in order to ascertain the existence of depression and/or diagnose the presence of other psychological disorders.

Rest assured that in seeking medical help for your child, antidepressant medication is contraindicated for this age group. Psychological counseling of the parents and other family members would seek to establish the reason for the apparent depressed behavior in the infant. This could be due to a variety of reasons, such as postnatal depression in the mother, chronic tension in the household, or interference from siblings, for example. These reasons would ideally be addressed in conjunction with assistance from the parents and other case workers as deemed appropriate.

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