What New Moms Need to Boost Their Mood and Enjoy Parenting

4 key findings from a new study on need fulfillment and postpartum depression.

Posted Apr 18, 2017

The arrival of a baby begins an exciting adventure, with countless opportunities to experience joy and meaning. At the same time, this new relationship presents unique challenges: sleepless nights, concerns about being a good parent, tests of patience, financial strains, and severe restrictions on one's time, among others.

Accordingly, parenthood can take a major toll on mothers' well-being, with as many as 30 percent of women reporting depressive symptoms in the postnatal period. 

Creative Commons/Pixabay
Source: Creative Commons/Pixabay

A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology examined mothers' postpartum depression in relation to their psychological needs and parenting behaviors. 

Needs included competence (feeling like we're good at what we do), relatedness (having satisfying relationships), and autonomy (freedom to determine our own actions). When these needs are satisfied, we tend to feel content; having our needs frustrated lowers our well-being, and can lead to depression. 

The researchers focused on two types of parenting behaviors: responsiveness, which included close involvement with their child and showing warmth and affection; and autonomy support, which was defined as understanding their child's perspective and providing them with choices as much as possible. Previous studies have found that both of these factors is important for a child's psychological development.

The study, conducted by a team of researchers from Ghent University in Belgium, included over 200 mothers (70 percent first-time moms) who participated across three waves:

  • Wave 1: During their second or third trimesters, participants reported their depressive symptoms and level of need satisfaction/frustration.
  • Wave 2: Shortly after giving birth, mothers again reported their depressive symptoms, along with a measure of need satisfaction/frustration specific to their interactions with their baby.
  • Wave 3: When their kids were about 2-years-old, mothers once again completed measures of their depressive symptoms. They also answered questions about their responsiveness and autonomy support as parents. 

Previous studies had relied on correlational designs in which all measures were taken at the same time point. While this cross-sectional approach can be a good starting point to begin testing the relationships among variables, it can't tell us whether variable A leads to B or B leads to A. For example, knowing that depression symptoms and need frustration are correlated at a single point in time doesn't tell us whether depression causes need frustration or vice versa (or if they both affect each other). A longitudinal design like the current study used is much more powerful for determining how variables affect each other.


Several important findings emerged from this study:

  1. Low need satisfaction before the baby's arrival predicted greater postpartum depression. The authors noted that postpartum depression seems to be more common among those who, prior to becoming mothers, doubt their self-efficacy (low competence), feel lonely and disappointed in their relationships (low relatedness), and feel like they're controlled by outside forces (low autonomy). 
  2. Postpartum depression increases the risk for depression two years later. Rather than being a transitory state that resolves in the weeks and months after a baby is born, postpartum depression is linked to depression in subsequent years. 
  3. Mothers whose needs were satisfied before the baby's arrival scored higher on parenting-related need satisfaction shortly after birth. Need satisfaction was indicated by statements like, "Today I felt a sense of choice and freedom in the things I did with my child," while need frustration included statements like, "Today I felt forced to do things for my child that I didn't choose to do." Thus mothers who got their needs met before having kids also tended to have more satisfying and need-fulfilling interactions with their babies.  
  4. Parenting-related need satisfaction led to better parenting. Moms who experienced greater satisfaction shortly after the birth of their child reported greater responsiveness to their toddler's needs two years later. For example, they scored higher on items like, "I am able to make my child feel better when s/he is upset." They also were more likely to support their developing child's autonomy at age 2, endorsing statements such as, "When possible, I allow my child to choose what to do." 
Creative Commons/Pixabay
Source: Creative Commons/Pixabay


These findings suggest that getting one's needs met in the prenatal period can lower a woman's risk of postpartum depression. This result underscores the value of prenatal postpartum depression prevention, which could include an assessment of the expectant mother's needs. Those who are identified as being at risk may be offered prenatal interventions, and monitored closely in the postpartum period.

The effects of postpartum depression on depression two years later points to the long-term risks associated with perinatal depression. Efforts to prevent postpartum depression may have similarly far-reaching effects.

Perhaps not surprisingly, prenatal need satisfaction also led to greater need satisfaction as a parent. This finding suggests that addressing one's needs before having a baby might set a person up for higher need satisfaction as a parent. More research is needed to test that prediction.

Finally, greater need satisfaction in one's very early experiences with a child led to better parenting in the toddler years: greater responsiveness to the toddler's needs as well as more support for his or her autonomy. Thus having one's needs met during pregnancy leads to good outcomes not only for the mother but for how she relates to her child.

It's worth noting that all of the data, including quality of parenting, were based on the mothers' self-reports. It will be important to try to replicate this study using observer reports of parenting, to eliminate the possible bias from self-report.

Like most good research, this study raises as many questions as it answers. Perhaps most important, how can mothers get their needs met, in both the prenatal and postnatal periods? (See this related post for some suggestions: Parenthood Often Lowers Well-Being—Especially for Moms). Future research might address this crucial question.

Based on this study's findings, increasing one's satisfaction of the basic psychological needs could have profound effects on the experience of being a mother.

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Brenning, K., & Soenens, B. (2017). A self-determination perspective on postpartum depressive symptoms and early parenting behaviors. Journal of Clinical Psychology. doi:10.1002/jclp.22480

Goodman, J. H. (2004). Paternal postpartum depression, its relationship to maternal postpartum depression, and implications for family health. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 45, 26-35.