Objective. To determine whether prepartum and postpartum emotional distress in first-time mothers is associated with crying and fussing behavior and activity level in 6-week-old infants, after eliminating potential biases.
Design. Observational study examining predictive and concurrent associations between maternal emotions and infant behaviors.
Setting. General community.
Participants. Expectant primiparas attending obstetricians' offices for routine prenatal care were recruited in the third trimester. Mothers and babies were required to be free of medical complications to complete the study. Of 113 mothers who enrolled, complete crying/fussing data were obtained in 88 dyads. Activity data were obtained in a designated subgroup of 50 infants.
Measurements. Mothers completed a self-report scale of emotional distress, the 28-item General Health Questionnaire, at 34 weeks of gestation and at 6 weeks postpartum. Crying/fussing data were obtained using a previously validated parent diary of infant behavior during the sixth week of life. Motor activity was measured objectively in the home setting with actometers.
Results. Third-trimester distress was not related to either infant crying/fussing or activity. Postpartum distress was significantly related to crying/fussing duration and bout frequency (r = .45 and .28, respectively; both P < .01). These relations were not diminished after controlling statistically for background and/or potential mediating variables, nor could they be accounted for by different diary-recording styles in the mothers. Postpartum distress was not, however, related to activity level (r = -.09; not significant). Furthermore, the pattern of maternal distress was associated differentially with crying levels. Distress levels increased from prepartum to postpartum among mothers of infants who met predefined clinical criteria for "colic," while decreasing in the others ("colic" status x period interaction: F(1,86) = 8.2; P < .01). Also, infant crying varied among four groups of mothers who differed according to presence and timing of clinically significant emotional disturbance (one-way analysis of variance, F (3,86) = 9.4; P < .001). Infants of mothers who became significantly distressed postpartum ("reactive") cried more than those in the other groups, even mothers who had been distressed both prepartum and postpartum ("depressed") (3.7 vs 2.7 h/d; P = .05, post hoc Tukey).
Conclusions. Maternal emotional distress and infant crying behavior are associated in the postpartum period independent of reporting or referral biases. Clinically significant levels of crying (or "colic") are differentially associated with different patterns of clinically significant maternal distress. Reported concern about either maternal mood or infant crying behavior should be taken seriously as a possible indicator of a stressed mother-infant relationship.