Psychological Medicine

Original Articles

Depressive symptoms in early pregnancy disrupt attentional processing of infant emotion

R. M. Pearsona1 c1, R. M. Coopera2, I. S. Penton-Voaka2, S. L. Lightmana3 and J. Evansa1

a1 Academic Unit of Psychiatry, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK

a2 Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK

a3 Henry Wellcome Laboratories for Integrative Neuroscience and Endocrinology, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK


Background Growing evidence suggests that perinatal depression is associated with disrupted mother–infant interactions and poor infant outcomes. Antenatal depression may play a key role in this cycle by disrupting the development of a maternal response to infant stimuli. The current study therefore investigated the impact of depressive symptoms on the basic cognitive processing of infant stimuli at the beginning of pregnancy.

Method A total of 101 women were recruited by community midwives and tested at an average gestation of 11 weeks. An established computerized paradigm measured women's ability to disengage attention from infant and adult faces displaying negative positive and neutral emotions. Depressive symptoms were measured using a computerized interview (the Clinical Interview Schedule).

Results The effect of infant emotion on women's ability to disengage from infant faces was found to be influenced by depressive symptoms. Non-depressed pregnant women took longer to disengage attention from distressed compared with non-distressed infant faces. This bias was not, however, seen in women experiencing depressive symptoms. There was a difference of −53 (s.d.=0.7) ms (95% confidence interval −90 to −14, p=0.007) between those with and without depressive symptoms in this measure of attentional bias towards distressed infant faces.

Conclusions Our results suggest that depressive symptoms are already associated with differential attentional processing of infant emotion at the very beginning of childbearing. The findings have potential implications for our understanding of the impact of depressive symptoms during pregnancy on the developing mother–infant relationship.

(Received September 25 2008)

(Revised July 06 2009)

(Accepted July 09 2009)

(Online publication August 12 2009)


c1 Address for correspondence: R. M. Pearson, Academic Unit of Psychiatry, Cotham House, Cotham Hill, Bristol BS6 6JL, UK. (Email: