Postpartum Depression Linked to Challenges in Parenting: Could Oxytocin Help?

By Ernest F (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (

Carrying a baby is a challenge for any mother, but it is even more difficult for women who give birth and experience postpartum depression. Having postpartum depression or PPD, can lead to adverse effects on child outcomes. Current evidence on PPD and parenting, including preliminary data on the role of oxytocin, is reviewed in the January/February edition of Harvard Review of Psychiatry, the journal published by Wolters Kluwer.

The Study

Interventions for women with PPD can improve their parenting behaviors, according to research done by Beth L. Mah, PhD, of Mothers and Babies Research Centre, Hunter Medical Research Institute, in New Lambton Heights, NWS, Australia. Hormone therapy with oxytocin might be a useful part of those treatment approaches, but more studies must be done to define the benefits and risks.

Postnatal depression is a common disorder and it affects 10 to 20 percent of new mothers. Children who are taken care of by a mother with postpartum depression are at risk of a possible adverse outcome, with increased rates of psychiatric disorders and developmental issues.

PPD is linked to poorer parenting behaviors, based on the findings of 33 studies. Dr. Mah said, “Compared to non-depressed controls, mothers with PND interact with their infants less sensitively, report feeling less competent, and less often choose recommended practical parenting strategies.”

Several studies done evaluated treatment programs aimed at improving parenting skills in mothers with postpartum depression. While the studies varied in terms of the type of treatment and the way the results were assessed. According to Dr. Mah, “Psychological interventions for mothers with postnatal depression generally have positive effects on mother-infant interactions.”

Oxytocin is a hormone that plays a vital role in labor and breast-feeding and it seems to have a big impact on parenting too. In 13 studies, higher oxytocin levels was associated with parental behaviors likely to promote bonding. Some studies have suggested that parental behaviors may improve after a woman receives treatment using oxytocin.
Research so far has had contradictory results: women with higher natural oxytocin levels have better moods, but administration of oxytocin results in poorer mood. Dr. Mah writes, “Oxytocin is useful in improving parental behaviors in mothers with postnatal depression, but more research is needed to establish its safety because of the uncertain impact of oxytocin upon maternal mood.”


Priorities for future research must include higher-quality data on how postnatal depression affects parenting and better tools for diagnosing postnatal depression. Other areas which need to be addressed include parental assessment and measuring oxytocin levels. Dr. Mah concludes, “Perhaps the most important challenge is to determine whether oxytocin could be used as an adjunctive treatment to improve mother-infant relationships that are affected by the mother’s postnatal depression or other psychiatric conditions.”


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