Pregnancy and childbirth can be happy and even magical experiences, but they can also be challenging and filled with anxiety. For many new or expectant moms, the physical changes and emotional stresses of the perinatal period – the weeks before and after childbirth – can take a toll on their mental health.
Perhaps the most widely recognized example of this is postpartum depression, which begins in the weeks following delivery. But depression and other mood disorders can occur any time before or after the birth of a baby. For some women, a mental health condition may be the continuation or recurrence of a symptom that existed before pregnancy. For others, it may show up in pregnancy for the first time. Disorders occurring during pregnancy are often referred to as prenatal or antenatal, meaning before birth.
Pregnancy’s an emotional time, with lots of ups and downs. It’s important to know the difference between normal emotions and a serious mental health condition. Like most pregnant women, you probably worry about lots of things, including your baby’s health or the changes occurring in your own body and appearance. A mental health condition like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is different.
Symptoms of GAD may include:
Similarly, most women have a day or two when they feel down. An occasional blue mood is very different from major depressive disorder (MDD). The first sign of MDD is a sad mood that lasts all day on most days and persists for at least two weeks.
Symptoms of MDD may include:
Physiological and hormonal changes associated with pregnancy as well as the physical and emotional stresses of pregnancy and preparation for childbirth are thought to trigger or worsen mental health conditions.
Although any woman can experience serious anxiety or depression during pregnancy, you may be more at risk if you:
Screening for depression and anxiety should be part of regular prenatal care. If your doctor asks questions about your mental health, be sure to answer honestly.
Unfortunately, not all expectant moms get mental health screenings. If your doctor doesn’t ask and you’re feeling anxious or depressed, don’t be afraid to speak up. You shouldn’t be embarrassed or ashamed to seek help when you need it, especially when it affects both you and your baby.
There are many effective treatments for mental health conditions. Treatment will ideally involve your primary physician, prenatal care provider (the obstetrician or doctor who provides your pregnancy care), and a mental health professional, such as a psychologist, therapist, or social worker.
Counseling, or psychotherapy, is the cornerstone of therapy during pregnancy. Two types, in particular, have proven useful for antenatal mental disorders:
Other treatments may include:
You and your doctor should consider treatment decisions carefully. It’s important to weigh the potential risk of the medications against the risks of untreated depression. Many drugs can pass through the placenta to your baby. Certain antidepressants may cause miscarriage, low birth weight, premature birth, or some congenital disabilities. If you’re already taking medication for a condition that existed before pregnancy, it’s important not to stop treatment without speaking with your doctor.
Treating mental health conditions that occur in pregnancy is important not only for the mother but also for her baby. A growing body of research suggests that a mother’s mental health during pregnancy can affect her baby’s developing brain and may influence her child’s psychological state later on.
Depression during pregnancy could potentially lead to developmental, learning, and behavioral concerns in children. The children of mothers who were depressed during pregnancy may also be at greater risk of mental health conditions later in life.
Depression during pregnancy may also increase the risk a baby will:
For expectant mothers, an untreated mental health condition can detract from the joy of pregnancy, make it difficult to prepare for the baby’s arrival, and to breastfeed or properly care for her newborn. Antenatal mental health conditions may also persist or worsen after childbirth.
If you’re pregnant and experience symptoms of anxiety or depression, speak with your doctor or midwife. They can help you get treatment so pregnancy and new parenthood can be the happy time you and your baby deserve.
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MDEdge.com: “Psychiatric illness during pregnancy.”
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My.clevelandclinic.org: “Panic Disorder.”
Nimh.nih.gov: “Generalized Anxiety Disorder: When Worry Gets Out of Control.”
Psychiatry.org: “What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?"
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