Research projects

Early intervention to protect the mother-infant relationship following postnatal depression – A randomised controlled trial

Principal researcher

Professor Jeannette Milgrom
Dr Charlene Schembri


Austin Health



Award type

National Priority Driven Research Program

Project completion year


Project brief

The project will evaluate a targeted intervention that has the potential to improve developmental outcomes of children of depressed mothers through improving the quality of mother-infant interactions, parenting stress and maternal feelings of attachment to the infant. It is also likely that this intervention will result in further improvements in maternal mood and self-efficacy.

In an RCT, the project aims to assess the effectiveness of a brief (four sessions) program to enhance mother-infant relationships (HUGS: Happiness, Understanding, Giving and Sharing). This will be added to a nine-week, previously evaluated treatment for postnatal depression (PND) (Milgrom et al., 2005). The HUGS intervention builds on skills developed in this PND treatment program allowing a short duration ‘booster’ to change the negative trajectory of mother-infant interactions.

Anticipated practical outcomes, community benefits

The intervention trialled in the project will fill an important gap by providing an evidence-based brief, and thus cost-effective, intervention to promote the mother-infant relationship following PND. It could be rolled out at a national level and support the National Perinatal Depression Initiative.

Each year around 40,000 women experience postnatal depression (PND) and accompanying feelings of hopelessness and despair are accentuated by difficulties in their relationship with their infants. In light of the significance of early childhood experiences on adult health in later life, the social and economic benefits of such an intervention are substantial and of major public health significance.

This line of research is supported by the recently released Clinical Practice Guidelines for Depression and Related Disorders in the Perinatal Period (Beyond Blue, 2011) which state that ’it is clear that addressing the mother’s depression alone is often insufficient to improve outcomes for the infant’ (p. 45). The guidelines recommend treatment specifically for mother-infant interactional difficulties and the need for further research. This is consistent with recommendations in the NICE guidelines in the UK (National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health, 2007).

The findings of the project will be presented at Australian and international conferences, and the results will be written up for international, peer-reviewed journals. This will facilitate the application of findings to other services as a model practice for improving care for women experiencing postnatal depression both nationally and internationally.

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