I recently came across research by Ed Tronick, PhD, Chief of the Child Development Unit at Boston Hospital, that focuses on the generally unspoken topic of infant depression. Tronick was one of the first researchers to explore the emotional capacities of infants and to show that babies are significantly affected by their parents’ emotional states and behavior.
Before he and others broke ground on this research, the prevailing, unchallenged orthodoxy was that mother and child were a well-functioning unit, unhampered by the sorts of stresses we now know have a definite effect on the infant’s developing mind. Tronick refers to the earlier romanticized view as the “Madonna and Child idea.”
From a Boston Globe article on Tronick’s work:
This (idea) held that a mentally sound baby would always be “emotionally coordinated” with its parents and would, essentially, act perfectly if its parents followed the correct formula. Over years of research, Tronick argued that development is not such a smooth process. “What’s normal is that a child accomplishes something, then gets disorganized around that. You need internal struggle to let things emerge.” Hence the sleepless nights and crying fits of a baby that has just learned how to walk.
Tronick conducted much of his research by watching slow-motion videotapes of mothers interacting with their babies. He spent painstaking years recording every head movement, every gesture. He also developed an experiment called the “still-face” paradigm, in which the mother freezes in front of her child, eliciting increasingly strong reactions as the baby attempts to win back her attention. The experiment is now a textbook standard in the child development field.
After studying the moment-by-moment interactions of depressed mothers and their babies, Tronick determined that depression is a communicable disease, traveling from mother to baby, and then from baby back to mother in a continuous, vicious cycle.
Tronicks’s book, The Neurobehavioral and Social Emotional Development of Infants and Children, is a touchstone text in child development research.
Link to the Google book page