We often hear talk of postpartum depression, or the baby blues, which occurs shortly after the birth of a baby, but we don’t hear as much about depression that occurs during pregnancy, called prenatal depression. An estimated 14 percent to 23 percent of women will experience symptoms of depression during pregnancy. However, these depressive symptoms are often more minor than a full-blown diagnosis of depression, which is typically seen in about 13 percent of pregnant women and new mothers.
Potential triggers of prenatal depression include:
- Hormones: Research has shown that hormones affect the areas of our brains that control mood and the difference in hormonal levels during pregnancy may trigger depression in some women. However, while hormones are often blamed for many of the mood swings and other emotional and psychological happenings in pregnancy, they are usually only one part of the whole picture when it comes to pregnancy and depression.
- Stress: Sometimes the stress of pregnancy brings on depressive symptoms, even when the pregnancy was planned. These feeling might intensify if your pregnancy is complicated or unplanned. If life itself is stressful, for instance, you have financial difficulties or relationship issues, this can also lead to depression. Other known stress-causing factors are sometimes brought on simply because of the changes that pregnancy potentially brings, like moving to a new house or apartment to increase space or to have a more baby-friendly environment. Sometimes this might mean career changes for one or both parents too.
- Abuse or trauma: Having a history of trauma or abuse may trigger prenatal depression.
- Previous depression: If you have ever been diagnosed with depression before you became pregnant, your risk for depression during pregnancy is higher than for women who have never had depression.
- Family history: If depression runs in your family, you may be at a higher risk.
Some of the risks of untreated depression during pregnancy include:
- A negative impact on good prenatal care. This is especially true in the areas of nutrition, sleep habits, exercise, and following care instructions from your doctor or midwife. This can result in not gaining enough weight, missing doctor appointments, and difficulty sleeping, all of which are harmful to your baby.
- A higher risk of substance abuse. This includes alcohol, drugs, and cigarette smoking.
- Problems for your baby. Low birth weight and/or premature birth are more of a risk for babies when depression is untreated. Babies who are born to mothers who are depressed also tend to be less active and more agitated.
- Postpartum depression. Your risk of staying depressed after your baby is born increases, which makes it difficult to parent.
Signs of Depression
Many of the signs of depression mimic pregnancy symptoms. It can be hard to determine what is normal fatigue in pregnancy and what is actually depression, which can lead to an under-reporting of the problem. There is also a tendency to ignore depression in pregnancy simply because this is supposed to be a happy time in life. Symptoms of depression include:
- Problems concentrating
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Changes in eating habits
- Feeling anxious
- Feeling blue
- Feeling guilty, overwhelmed, or worthless
- Isolating yourself from others
- Feeling detached from your baby
- Having recurrent headaches and stomachaches
- Crying more than usual
If you have these signs, especially if they have been going on for 2 weeks or more, call your doctor right away. It’s important for both you and your baby’s health that you get treatment.
Treatment during pregnancy involves several avenues, including:
- Support network: Developing your support network is extremely valuable. Being surrounded by supportive individuals that you know can be beneficial, particularly if they have experienced the same feelings. This can include joining an online or community support group as well.
- Counseling: Talking to a professional counselor or therapist can also be very beneficial, particularly since there are major changes going on during pregnancy.
- Medication: Antidepressants can also be used during pregnancy under the care of a practitioner who has experience with using antidepressants and other medications during the course of pregnancy and breastfeeding. Around 13 percent of women take antidepressants during their pregnancies.
- Light therapy: Using a therapeutic light may help naturally improve your symptoms, especially if you live in an area that’s often cloudy and/or it’s winter.
It’s Important to Get Help
The key to preventing the problems that stem from depression in pregnancy is getting the support and help you need as soon as you realize that you are experiencing it. With many pregnant women having depressive symptoms, it’s important to recognize that you’re not alone, and that help is available. Talk to your doctor or midwife if you are in need of help or reach out to other organizations. Getting treatment is the best gift you can give yourself and your growing baby.