Background: Thoughts of harming the infant and other disturbing cognitions are frequently described in anecdotal reports on postpartum depression. These cognitions have not been examined empirically.
Methods: 100 clinically depressed mothers with a child under 3 years were evaluated and compared to a control group of 46 nondepressed mothers.
Results: 41% of depressed mothers compared to 7% of control mothers admitted to thoughts of harming their infant. Fear of being alone with the infant and inability to care for the infant were assessed only in depressed mothers and occurred less frequently. More than half of depressed mothers had problems in one of these three areas.
Conclusions: Thoughts of harming the infant are common in depressed mothers. Demographic variables, psychosocial stressors and psychiatric variables do not help predict which mothers are likely to experience thoughts of harm or fear of being alone with the infant. These cognitive and affective disturbances may be one pathway by which maternal depression affects infants.
Limitations: The control group was not given the full diagnostic interview. Consequently, the groups were not selected by identical procedures. Also fear of being alone with the infant and difficulty caring for the infant were not assessed in the control group.