Causes And Treatments For Depression During Pregnancy

Updated January 4, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, approximately 1 out of every 10 women experience symptoms of depression during pregnancy. This is often referred to as antepartum depression and is the most common psychiatric disorder in pregnancy, affecting more than 13% of all people who are pregnant. Some people may think that symptoms of depression in a pregnant person is related to hormones and is a natural part of the swings of mood that occur during pregnancy. However, these symptoms may be an indicator of a serious mental disorder that should be recognized and treated as soon as possible. In this article, you will learn about the causes and treatments for depression during pregnancy to help you gain a greater understanding and identify if you or someone you care for needs help. 

Are You Managing Depression During Your Pregnancy?

Causes Of Antepartum Depression

Depression is characterized by changes in physical health, feelings, thoughts, and behavior that affect a person’s ability to accomplish daily tasks and overall quality of life. These symptoms can impact not only daily living but personal and work relationships. 

While it is difficult to isolate one specific cause of depression during pregnancy (sometimes known as antepartum depression), some researchers believe that the hormonal changes occurring during pregnancy play a large role in triggering a depressive episode. Pregnancy hormones directly impact the chemicals in your brain that control mood (serotonin, dopamine, etc.) However, hormones may not be the only factor. A pregnant person may be dealing with difficult life situations that make it tough to manage the stress of your pregnancy effectively. The birth of a new child on the horizon can make other challenges, such as finances or relationships, seem more overwhelming. Lastly, there are the changes that are occurring within a pregnant woman’s body that can exacerbate any other external stressors.

If you are someone you know has been subjected to violence of any kind call 911, the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-787-SAFE (7233), TTY 1-800-787-3224 or get professional help immediately

While there is not a single specific cause for depression in pregnancy, there are some common risk factors. These include:

  • Family or personal history of depression

  • Anxiety and/or life stress

  • Recent traumatic life event, such as the death of a loved one

  • Relationship problems

  • Lack of support from friends or family

  • Domestic violence

  • Financial problems

  • Smoking

  • Single status

Any of the above factors can lead to depression even in people who are not pregnant. However, pregnancy exacerbates each of these risk factors and increases the risk for developing a depressive disorder. 

For example, if you recently lost someone close to you, you may be overwhelmed with sadness at the thought that this person will not be a part of your child's life. If you are living with domestic violence, you may despair at the thought of bringing a child into this scary, dangerous, and sad environment.

If you are someone you know has been subjected to violence of any kind call 911, the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-787-SAFE (7233), TTY 1-800-787-3224 or get professional help immediately

But how do you know when it has crossed the line from sadness into true depression? Look for the following signs:

  • Excessive worry and anxiety

  • Feelings of worthlessness

  • Loss of interest in activities that you once enjoyed

  • Appetite problems

You may want to ignore these signs of depression and think that they are simply part of being pregnant. But they are not. Reach out for help from your friends, family, and/or professionals. If left untreated there are risks that are difficult to manage alone. 

Risks Of Antepartum Depression

Left untreated, antepartum depression poses some significant risks to you and your baby. When you are depressed, you are less likely to take care of yourself. Pregnant women who suffer from depression may make poor nutritional choices, either not eating enough or choosing unhealthy foods. They are also more likely to smoke or to consume alcohol. In the worst-case scenario, a depressed parent-to-be may even engage in suicidal thoughts or behaviors, a mortal risk to their fetus and themselves.

 If you are someone you know has suicidal thoughts or plans, call  911, the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255),  chat or text at 988 or dial 711 (via cell),  or get professional help immediately

Depression during pregnancy has been linked to premature birth and low birth weight. Pregnant women who suffer from depression also have an increased risk of developing pregnancy-induced hypertension or pre-eclampsia, a condition which is dangerous to both mother and child.

The newborn children of depressed moms-to-be may also be adversely affected, especially if they were born prematurely. There is evidence that the effects of depression during pregnancy can last for a child's entire lifespan. A study from the British Journal of Psychiatry found a direct link between pregnancy during depression and children developing mood disorders later in life. Children born to depressed mothers were 1.5 times as likely to suffer from depression at the age of 18. This trend may be partly because of the proven genetic component of depression. But it has also been found that the effects depression has on the brain can be passed along through the placenta, directly impacting the unborn child's brain development.

If you are currently pregnant and living with depression, this information may add to the overwhelming feelings you are experiencing. Remember this article is meant to inform you, and reaching out for support from friends, family, or a professional therapist can be your first step. 

Treating Depression Without Medication

Many pregnant people are concerned that treating their depressive disorder with medications is unhealthy for their fetuses. For this reason, most pregnant persons will ask for behavioral interventions to treat the depressive disorder. In these cases, there are several options you can try to help you manage your symptoms. 

Psychotherapy

Different kinds of therapy can be successful in treating antepartum depression. If you are dealing with added stress due to relationship problems, you can try relationship or couples’ therapy. Several non-pharmacological therapeutic interventions can strategize ways to cope. If you already have a therapist, tell them immediately if you are experiencing symptoms of depression. You may not have a therapist; if so, consider finding one to help you manage depressive symptoms. Even if you are not feeling depressed but are simply experiencing stress and anxiety, talking to a professional is extremely helpful. They can guide you through different strategies to stress management and provide you with resources that build resilience and promote calm.

Support Groups

There are also several support groups for depression, both in person and online, that you can easily find to match your needs. Talking about your feelings in a non-judgmental group setting can give you some perspective and improve your self-esteem. You will also feel better knowing that others have some of the same concerns and issues as you do.

Exercise

Before you practice any new form of physical activity, check in with your healthcare provider to ensure it is safe. 

Exercise has been shown in several studies to help improve symptoms of depression. The benefits of exercise are earned without a risk of adverse effects for both the pregnant parent and their fetus. When you exercise, your brain releases feel-good endorphins that may immediately elevate your mood. Moderate physical activity (such as brisk walks, aerobic, strength, or balance exercises) can help you build resilience for stress, lower your anxiety, and help prepare your body for birth. 

Are You Managing Depression During Your Pregnancy?

Acupuncture

In 2010, the Stanford School of Medicine found that acupuncture was a highly effective way to treat depression during pregnancy. In the study led by Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Rachel Manber, researchers recruited 150 pregnant women who met the criteria for depressive disorder. The pregnant people who received eight weeks of acupuncture therapy reported that they had a significant reduction of depression symptoms. Acupuncture releases endorphins which function as natural painkillers and calm the stress response.

Antidepressant Medications

Any of these methods, or some combination of them, can help you overcome mild to moderate depression. But if your depression is severe, you may find that your healthcare provider or psychiatrist wants to prescript antidepressant medication for relief.

If so, there is no reason to panic. Your mental health is essential to give birth to a healthy baby. The benefits far outweigh the risks, as we will point out.

The Benefits And Risks Of Antidepressants During Pregnancy

Any medication that you take during pregnancy will cross the placenta to reach your unborn baby. It is unknown if antidepressants are safe to take during pregnancy.

However, as we already discussed, the risks of untreated depression during pregnancy are too great to be ignored. Antidepressants during pregnancy do not increase your baby's risk for congenital disabilities.

Most doctors will want to try as many alternative methods as possible before prescribing an antidepressant during pregnancy. But if none of these are working, medication is the route that represents the least amount of risk to you and your unborn child. If you do need antidepressant medication, your doctor will try to prescribe the lowest possible effective dose. It can take some time to figure out what dosage will be effective in treating your depression while minimizing the risk to the baby.

In general, it is important to understand that any slight risk associated with antidepressant medication is minimal compared to the real and proven danger posed by untreated depression.

If You Become Pregnant While Taking Antidepressants

If you are already taking medication for depression when you become pregnant, you may be tempted to reduce your dosage, or even stop taking the medication altogether. Before you make any decisions regarding your medication or medications, contact your health care provider. They are the only ones qualified to make decisions regarding your medications. 

This decision is complex, and there are many factors which need to be considered. How long have you been symptom-free? How severe is your depression? While stopping your medication may seem like the obvious choice, remember that depression really affects your unborn baby. It is possible that the benefits of continuing to take your medication may outweigh any potential risks.

Pregnancy is the first of many occasions in which mothers must put their children's well-being ahead of their own. But in fact, taking good care of yourself is an excellent way to take good care of your children. During your pregnancy and throughout your life as a parent, remember that your physical and mental health is of paramount importance. 

Reaching Out

Pregnancy can be a stressful time when many worries and feelings arise. You may have experienced bouts of anxiety or even some of the symptoms mentioned above. If so, consider looking for a therapist as soon as possible. Several therapeutic interventions can help you. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy (MCBT) are two options you can choose to help you alter negative thought processes that are causing you to feel depressed. For example, an extensive review conducted by the US Preventative Services Task Force revealed that therapy lowered the likelihood of perinatal depression up to 31.8% (compared to a 1.3% lowered rate in the control group) in pregnant women. 

If you are worried you may be at risk for developing depression, you may greatly lower your risk by talking to a therapist today. When you are pregnant, making appointments and traveling to an office for therapy can add to your anxiety and stress. You may even be avoiding therapy because you cannot find the time or want to be in the comfort of your own home. Online therapy is a convenient alternative to in-person therapy that is supported by research to be just as effective, more accessible, and causes less distress.  Online therapists at BetterHelp are experienced at the kind of therapy that can ease depression. Do not hesitate to reach out to one of them if needed.

Questions People Commonly Ask On This Topic:

Is depression a side effect of pregnancy?
What kind of depression can you get while pregnant?
What is the safest way to treat depression during pregnancy?
Why is my pregnancy making me so sad?
What happens to fetus when mother cries?
Is it normal to not feel happy during pregnancy?
Why is pregnancy so lonely?
Can babies feel emotions in the womb?
Can you have PPD while pregnant?
Why is my pregnant wife so mean to me?

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