Families in Psychiatry

The three pillars of perinatal care: Babies, parents, dyadic relationships


Perinatal depression (PND) is the most common obstetric complication in the United States. Even when screening results are positive, mothers often do not receive further evaluation, and even when PND is diagnosed, mothers do not receive evidence-based treatments. PND has potential long-term adverse health complications for the mother, her partner, the infant, and the mother-infant dyad.

Dr. Alison M. Heru, professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora Courtesy Dr. Alison M. Heru

Dr. Alison M. Heru

Meta-analytic estimates show that pregnant women suffer from PND at rates from 6.5% to 12.9% across pregnancy to 3-months post partum.1 Women from low-income families and adolescent mothers are at highest risk, where rates are double and triple respectively.

Fathers also suffer from PND, with a prevalence rate from 2% to 25%, increasing to 50% when the mother experiences PND.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a Policy Statement (January 2019) about the need to recognize and manage PND. They recommended that pediatric medical homes establish a system to implement the screening of mothers at the 1-, 2-, 4-, and 6-month well-child visits, to use community resources for the treatment and referral of the mother with depression, and to provide support for the maternal-child relationship.2

The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends advocacy for workforce development for mental health professionals who care for young children and mother-infant dyads, and for promotion of evidence-based interventions focused on healthy attachment and parent-child relationships.

Family research

There is a bidirectional association between family relational stress and PND. Lack of family support is both a predictor and a consequence of perinatal depression. Frequent arguments, conflict because one or both partners did not want the pregnancy, division of labor, poor support following stressful life events, lack of partner availability, and low intimacy are associated with increased perinatal depressive symptoms.

Gender role stress is also included as a risk factor. For example, men may fear performance failure related to work and sex, and women may fear disruption in the couple relationship due to the introduction of a child.

When depressed and nondepressed women at 2 months post delivery were compared, the women with depressive symptoms perceived that their partners did not share similar interests, provided little companionship, expressed disinterest in infant care, did not provide a feeling of connection, did not encourage them to get assistance to cope with difficulties, and expressed disagreement in infant care.3

A high-quality intimate relationship is protective for many illnesses and PND is no exception.4


Despite the availability of effective treatments, perinatal mental health utilization rates are strikingly low. There are limited providers and a general lack of awareness of the need for this care. The stigma for assessing and treating PND is high because the perception is that pregnancy is supposed to be a joyous time and with time, PND will pass.

The first step is a timely and accurate assessment of the mother, which should, if possible, include the father and other family support people. The preferred standard for women is the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS), a checklist of 10 items (listed below) with a maximum score of 30, and any score over 10 warrants further assessment.5 This scale is used worldwide in obstetric clinics and has been used to identify PND in fathers.

  • I have been able to laugh and see the funny side of things.
  • I have looked forward with enjoyment to things.
  • I have blamed myself unnecessarily when things went wrong.
  • I have been anxious or worried for no good reason.
  • I have felt scared or panicky for no good reason.
  • Things have been getting to me.
  • I have been so unhappy that I have had difficulty sleeping.
  • I have felt sad or miserable.
  • I have been so unhappy that I have been crying.
  • The thought of harming myself has occurred to me.

A new ultrabrief tool with only four questions is the Brief Multidimensional Assessment Scale (BMAS), which measures the ability to get things done, emotional support in important relationships, quality of life, and sense of purpose in life. It demonstrates concurrent validity with other measures and discriminates between nonclinical participants and participants from most clinical contexts.6

For those interested in assessing family health, an easy-to-use assessment tool is the 12-item Family Assessment Device (FAD).7

Family therapy interventions

A systematic review and meta-analysis of the current evidence on the usefulness of family therapy interventions in the prevention and treatment of PND identified seven studies.

In these studies, there were statistically significant reductions in depressive symptoms at postintervention in intervention group mothers. Intervention intensity and level of family involvement moderated the impacts of intervention on maternal depression, and there was a trend in improved family functioning in intervention group couples.8

Evidence-based interventions are usually psychoeducational or cognitive-behavioral family therapy models where focused interventions target the following three areas:

  • Communication skills related to expectations (including those that pertain to gender roles and the transition to parenthood) and emotional support.
  • Conflict management.
  • Problem-solving skills related to shared responsibility in infant care and household activities.

Intensive day program for mothers and babies

There is a growing awareness of the effectiveness of specialized mother-baby day hospital programs for women with psychiatric distress during the peripartum period.9

The Women & Infants’ Hospital (WIH) in Providence, R.I., established a mother-baby postpartum depression day program in 2000, adjacent to the obstetrical hospital, the ninth largest obstetrical service in the United States. The day program is integrated with the hospital’s obstetric medicine team and referrals are also accepted from the perinatal practices in the surrounding community. The treatment day includes group, individual, and milieu treatment, as well as consultation with psychiatrists, nutritionists, social workers, lactation specialists and others.

The primary theoretical model utilized by the program is interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT), with essential elements of the program incorporating cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and experiential strategies (for instance, mindfulness, breathing, progressive muscle relaxation) to improve self-care and relaxation skills. Patient satisfaction surveys collected from 800 women, (54% identified as White) treated at the program between 2007 and 2012 found that women were highly satisfied with the treatment received, noting that the inclusion of the baby in their treatment is a highly valued aspect of care.

A similar program in Minnesota reported that 328 women who consented to participation in research had significant improvements (P < .001) in self-report scales assessing depression, anxiety, and maternal functioning, improving mental health and parenting functioning.10

Lastly, a recent study out of Brussels, on the benefit of a mother-baby day program analyzed patient data from 2015 and 2020. This clinical population of 92 patients (43% identifying as North African) was comparable to the population of the inpatient mother-baby units in terms of psychosocial fragility except that the parents entering the day program had less severe illnesses, more anxiety disorder, and less postpartum psychosis. In the day program, all the babies improved in terms of symptoms and relationships, except for those with significant developmental difficulties.

The dyadic relationship was measured using “levels of adaptation of the parent–child relationship” scale which has four general levels of adjustment, from well-adjusted to troubled or dangerous relationship. Unlike programs in the United States, this program takes children up to 2.5 years old and the assessment period is up to 8 weeks.11

Prevention of mental illness is best achieved by reducing the known determinants of illness. For PND, the research is clear, so why not start at the earliest possible stage, when we know that change is possible? Pushing health care systems to change is not easy, but as the research accumulates and the positive results grow, our arguments become stronger.

Dr. Heru is a psychiatrist in Aurora, Colo. She is editor of “Working With Families in Medical Settings: A Multidisciplinary Guide for Psychiatrists and Other Health Professionals” (New York: Routledge, 2013). She has no conflicts of interest to disclose. Contact Dr. Heru at alisonheru@gmail.com.


1. Gavin NI et al. Perinatal depression: a systematic review of prevalence and incidence. Obstet Gynecol. 2005 Nov;106(5 Pt 1):1071-83. doi: 10.1097/01.AOG.0000183597.31630.db.

2. Rafferty J et al. Incorporating recognition and management of perinatal depression into pediatric practice. Pediatrics. 2019 Jan;143(1):e20183260. doi: 10.1542/peds.2018-3260.

3. Cluxton-Keller F, Bruce ML. Clinical effectiveness of family therapeutic interventions in the prevention and treatment of perinatal depression: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2018 Jun 14;13(6):e0198730. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0198730.

4. Kumar SA et al. Promoting resilience to depression among couples during pregnancy: The protective functions of intimate relationship satisfaction and self-compassion. Family Process. 2022 May;62(1):387-405. doi: 10.1111/famp.12788.

5. Cox JL et al. Detection of postnatal depression: Development of the 10-item Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. Br J Psychiatry. 1987 Jun;150:782-6. doi: 10.1192/bjp.150.6.782.

6. Keitner GI et al. The Brief Multidimensional Assessment Scale (BMAS): A broad measure of patient well-being. Am J Psychother. 2023 Feb 1;76(2):75-81. doi: 10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.20220032.

7. Boterhoven de Haan KL et al. Reliability and validity of a short version of the general functioning subscale of the McMaster Family Assessment Device. Fam Process. 2015 Mar;54(1):116-23. doi: 10.1111/famp.12113.

8. Cluxton-Keller F, Bruce ML. Clinical effectiveness of family therapeutic interventions in the prevention and treatment of perinatal depression: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2018 Jun 14;13(6):e0198730. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0198730.

9. Battle CL, Howard MM. A mother-baby psychiatric day hospital: History, rationale, and why perinatal mental health is important for obstetric medicine. Obstet Med. 2014 Jun;7(2):66-70. doi: 10.1177/1753495X13514402.

10. Kim HG et al. Keeping Parent, Child, and Relationship in Mind: Clinical Effectiveness of a Trauma-informed, Multigenerational, Attachment-Based, Mother-Baby Partial Hospital Program in an Urban Safety Net Hospital. Matern Child Health J. 2021 Nov;25(11):1776-86. doi: 10.1007/s10995-021-03221-4.

11. Moureau A et al. A 5 years’ experience of a parent-baby day unit: impact on baby’s development. Front Psychiatry. 2023 June 15;14. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2023.1121894.

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