If you’re pregnant — particularly with a planned and wanted pregnancy — there are a lot of emotions you’re probably expecting to feel: excited, overwhelmed, nervous, and joyful. What you’re not expecting is to feel down, hopeless, and drained of energy. Even if you have morning sickness, and even if you’re having terrible pregnancy insomnia (or the host of other physical problems that pregnancy can bring), none of that is supposed to change the fact that you’re overall really happy about this big change that’s going on in your body and your life. But prenatal depression, or depression while you’re pregnant, is far from unusual. And worrying about how prenatal depression affects both you and your baby can be a lot.
Experts estimate that roughly 8 to 12% of pregnant people experience depression during pregnancy. So while we typically only see images in the media of overjoyed “glowing” pregnant people, you’re not alone if that’s not your reality. If you’re not feeling like yourself, you might be worried you’ll always feel this way. What can you do to feel better? And is prenatal depression going to affect your baby? That last question can feel scary to even think about, but knowing the full picture, as well as options for treatment, can help you move into parenthood feeling more like your old self.
What are the signs of prenatal depression?
If you’ve experienced depression at a time when you weren’t pregnant, or are just familiar with the most common list of depression symptoms, the prenatal depression symptoms will have a familiar ring to it. “People with prenatal depression feel hopeless, and sad, sometimes to the extent of thinking of harming themselves or thinking they would be better off dead or not around. There can be re-occurring self-blaming thoughts and feelings of disconnection from the baby,” Catherine Monk, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the director of women’s embedded mental health inColumbia’s Obstetrics & Gynecology Department, tells Romper. Further, both your sleep and eating can be affected. Some people experiencing depression eat and sleep more than usual, and others much less. Either way, a break from your usual routine with food and rest can be a sign to pay attention to when figuring out if you’re experiencing this condition. (These signals can be a bit confusing in the postnatal period, since having a newborn can also affect your sleep and diet.)
How does prenatal depression affect your baby?
Untreated prenatal depression can affect your developing fetus. “Untreated depression during pregnancy has been associated with lower infant birth weight, increased rates of preterm birth, and increased rates of cesarean section,” Dr. Amanda Koire, a psychiatrist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, tells Romper. It also can be associated with the pregnant person feeling less of an emotional bond with the developing fetus.
If you’re in the grips of depression and read that information, that could make you feel even worse about yourself. But depression isn’t a choice you made, and nor should you despair that you’ve irrevocably harmed your baby. “There are many, many factors influencing fetal brain-behavior development, and if the mother is depressed, this is just one of the many factors that could influence that child’s development,” Monk explains. “Plus, early childhood is a time of tremendous plasticity in brain development such that any adverse influence of maternal prenatal depression could be moderated by positive influences in the postnatal period.” In short, getting help so that you can feel better is important, both for you and for your baby.
What are the treatment options for prenatal depression?
“Often people are told by those around them ‘you should get some help’ without a lot of guidance on how to do so,” Dr. Koire points out. So what does “getting help” actually look like? Often, it starts with talking to your obstetrician or primary car provider about how you’ve been feeling — don’t brush off your symptoms or expect that they’ll just resolve on their own. Treatment can include psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two. Postpartum Support International can be a helpful resource for finding local providers. Dr. Koire also suggests a newly launched mental health hotline: the National Maternal Mental Health Hotline (1-833-9-HELP4MOMS) which “provides 24/7, free, confidential support before, during, and after pregnancy.”
If you’re in the grips of a serious mental health crisis and are feeling actively suicidal, you need emergency care: going to the emergency room may be a necessity in those more serious situations.
In short, prenatal depression can affect your baby, but the worst thing you can do is be caught in a shame spiral and not tell anyone about your feelings. Monk sums up the main message that mental health providers want their patients to hear: “Prenatal depression is common and treatable. Do reach out for help to feel on the road to being back to your usual self, for you and your baby.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.
Catherine Monk, Ph.D., Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center
Amanda Koire, M.D., Ph.D., Brigham and Women’s Hospital