Does mothers' postnatal depression influence the development of imitation?

Oliver Perra, Rebecca Phillips, Rhiannon Fyfield, Cerith Waters, Dale F. Hay*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)
272 Downloads (Pure)


Background: Links between mothers' postnatal depression (PND) and children's cognition have been identified in several samples, but the evidence is inconsistent. We hypothesized that PND may specifically interfere with infants' imitation, an early learning ability that features in early mother-infant interaction and is linked to memory, causal understanding and joint attention. 

Methods: A randomly controlled experiment on imitation was embedded into a longitudinal study of a representative sample of firstborn British infants, whose mothers were assessed for depression using the SCAN interview during pregnancy and at 6 months postpartum. At a mean of 12.8 months, 253 infants were presented with two imitation tasks that varied in difficulty, in counterbalanced order. 

Results: The infants of mothers who experienced PND were significantly less likely than other infants in the sample to imitate the modelled actions, showing a 72% reduction in the likelihood of imitation. The association with PND was not explained by sociodemographic adversity, or a history of depression during pregnancy or prior to conception. Mothers' references to infants' internal states during mother-infant interaction at 6 months facilitated imitation at 12 months, but did not explain the link with PND. 

Conclusions: The findings support the hypothesis that associations between PND and later cognitive outcomes may partly derive from effects of the mother's illness on infants' early learning abilities. Support for infants' learning should be considered as an age-appropriate, child-focused component of interventions designed to ameliorate the effects of PND.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1231-1238
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry
Issue number11
Early online date10 Apr 2015
Publication statusPublished - 01 Nov 2015


  • infancy
  • Learning
  • maternal depression
  • postnatal

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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