Data from our research are reviewed showing limited attentiveness and responsivity to animate stimuli in newborns of depressed mothers. These include face–voice stimuli of mothers and strangers, newborn cry sounds and instrumental and vocal music. Newborns of depressed mothers are also noted to be less attentive and responsive when presented with inanimate stimuli, including different texture nipples, different temperature nipples and different weight tubes. Potential underlying mechanisms are suggested by research showing negative effects of prenatal depression, elevated prenatal cortisol and lower prenatal dopamine and serotonin on the newborns of depressed mothers. Additional risk factors are explored, including sleep disturbances and other prenatal stressors. Early interventions, including pregnancy massage, massage therapy for infants and demonstration of the Brazelton Assessment, have been noted to enhance the neonates' attentiveness and responsivity to animate and inanimate stimuli. Limitations of these studies are discussed, including the sample being limited to lower SES women who have many other problems that potentially affect newborns. More controlled studies are needed to assess potential mediating factors for the inferior performance of these newborns on perceptual tasks such as limited attentiveness and/or greater arousal as well as longitudinal follow-up studies to determine whether these limited perceptual abilities continue into infancy. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.