Mom’s Depression and Anxiety During Pregnancy and After Birth

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fear and anxiety in mom

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Dads, take note; we'll be talking about mom's possible depression and anxiety during pregnancy and after birth in this blog. There's a lot to be aware of. 

For most, pregnancy can be a time of great joy, but it can also be quite stressful. At times, a woman may feel that she's riding an emotional roller coaster along with the intense physical changes that are going on in her body.

In earlier blogs, we discussed Supporting Mom's Emotional Health During Pregnancy Part 1 and Part 2, dealing primarily with the regular ups and downs most women go through during pregnancy. 

We found that it's prevalent during pregnancy for a woman to go through a whole gamut of emotions, from excitement to uncertainty and nervousness.

Now we'll be talking about what you should know and what you can do if your partner develops a serious problem with depression or anxiety during pregnancy or in the 1st year of baby's life. 

Anxiety and Depression Prenatal and Postnatal 

Usually, pregnancy is thought of as a time of very positive feelings. However, about 20% of pregnant women will experience a serious bout of depression or anxiety during their pregnancy or in the first year of baby's life. 10% of men will also go through this, discussed separately in another blog. 

So what can be done for your partner, and how do you even know when there's a problem? Well, sometimes worry can take on a life of its own, and sometimes anxious thoughts can become persistent and pervasive to the point where they impact one's daily functioning.

Depression is the most common mood disorder marked by a loss of interest and feelings of sadness. Anxiety is a pervasive feeling of fear or worries about what may happen.

Depression and Anxiety During Pregnancy

Both can be brought on by stressors such as a fear of parenting, whether or not the pregnancy was planned, financial difficulties, job loss, and discrimination. For some, depression and anxiety will onset during the pregnancy and for others after the birth. 

Let's consider some of the most common symptoms that one should be watchful of.

Markers of Anxiety and Depression 

  • little interest in usual activities 
  • sad feelings
  • chronic irritability or a lack of energy 
  • feeling very tired
  • difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • difficulty concentrating, remembering things, or making decisions
  • not feeling up to everyday tasks
  • loss of interest in taking care of yourself
  • excessive worry about the baby
  • frequent crying spells
  • feelings of being an inadequate parent
  • loss of pleasure in things you ordinarily enjoy
  • thoughts of suicide. 

If any of these symptoms last longer than two weeks, your partner may have prenatal or postpartum depression or anxiety. The sooner it is handled, the better. Anxiety and depression are common and treatable. Help is available, and your partner will feel better in time. 

Risk Factors for Prenatal and Postnatal Anxiety and Depression 

Mom’s Depression and Anxiety During Pregnancy

While there is no single known cause, women who have experienced anxiety or depression are more likely to experience it again during pregnancy and after birth. Let's consider some of the risk factors:

  1. a prior history of mental illness 
  2. prior pregnancy complications 
  3. past trauma or abuse 
  4. an unplanned pregnancy 
  5. physical illness 
  6. being a stay-at-home mom 
  7. a history of postpartum depression 
  8. having limited financial resources 
  9. having little support at home 
  10. stopping taking psychiatric medications for mental health conditions. 

Researchers have found that a baby's cognitive-motor and mental health development can even be associated with stress the mother experienced years before becoming pregnant.

Dunkel Schetter's Stress Processes in Pregnancy Lab at UCLA found that a woman's stress level up to 4 years before conception is a risk factor for the length of pregnancy. However, just because one had prior mental illness does not necessarily mean they will become unwell again. 

Depression and anxiety can affect any woman: whether breastfed or not, whether their babies were healthy or ill, whether they were first-time mothers or had many children, and whether they were under extreme stress or not.

The most important takeaway is that depression and anxiety are health problems that can affect anyone and are not any woman's fault.

The Risk of Untreated Depression or Anxiety 

Untreated depression or anxiety carries risks for the child and mother. Studies have proven that maternal stress during one's pregnancy can negatively affect a child's development, later behavior, and emotional well-being. 

Babies exposed to greater stress while in the womb are likely to have higher anxiety levels following birth. Untreated anxiety and depression lead to a mother's worsening feelings and affect how she takes care of her own needs and the needs of her developing baby.

The mother may not eat as well or seek optimal prenatal care. Depressed mothers often have poor bonding skills with their newborns and higher rates of abandoning breastfeeding at two and four months.

Untreated depression was also shown to factor in with less involvement with babies leading to slower development than mothers not experiencing depression. It is important to take note that suicide is a leading cause of death in mothers after delivery.

Anxiety also increases the chance of having a lower birth weight baby. According to the March of Dimes,high-stresss levels in pregnancy may impact a child's attention span, brain development, and immune system.

In general, the more stress a mother has, the shorter her pregnancy. Women with very high levels of stress were likely to deliver one week or more earlier than women who were less stressed.

Advice for Fathers With Moms Who Have Depression Or Anxiety Difficulties

severely depressed mom with anxiety
  • Listen to her. Let her express her feelings to you. They are very real. 
  • Let her know that she is not to blame, that she has a health problem.
  • Offer encouragement and support. Your positive words and actions can help relieve a great deal of your partner's suffering.
  • Give her a chance to focus on her own needs. Physical and social activities will give her a break and help her feel better about herself.
  • Give her a chance to work, exercise, and pursue other personal activities.
  • Exercise along with her.
  • Help a little more with the household chores.
  • Be sure she gets enough rest.
  • If you find yourself becoming resentful or angry, seek counseling for yourself.
  • Encourage her to get all the help she needs. This is the fastest route to recovery.

Other things you can do 

Keep in mind research has shown that partner support can improve pregnancy outcomes. Encourage Mom to talk with her doctor, midwife, or other healthcare professionals. Always remind her that mental health concerns are nothing to be ashamed of.

Read and learn what you can about depression and anxiety.

Encourage your partner to join group therapy. Your care provider may have information on finding and joining a support group. Support groups can be particularly beneficial so your partner can share with other mothers what she's going through. 

Encourage your partner to talk to a mental health care provider as this can be a safe outlet for expressing feelings and finding out what's troubling her most. Cognitive behavior therapy has proven particularly effective. 

Lean more on family and friends to help with childcare chores and errands. Encourage mom to talk with family and friends about her challenges. Ask faith-based leaders for suggestions about support resources.

Support your partner's decision about how to feed the baby. Breast milk is best, but if mom decides on bottle-feeding, you can often take over feeding the baby to give mom a break. You can also do the same for breast milk pumped into a bottle.

Pregnancy books are great for making educated choices about your prenatal care. However, if they're making you overly anxious, give them a rest for a while. Keep up a healthy diet and get adequate sleep. Continue exercising and give yoga and meditation a chance. Rest when you can.

If you feel that you need medication, ask your care provider which medications can be used safely during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. 

A Word about Mom Taking Medication for Her Mental Health

medication for depression and anxiety following pregnancy

Many moms are reluctant about using medication during pregnancy, but you have to look at it in terms of risk versus reward. Keep in mind that some consequences go along with untreated depression. This is why it's so important to talk with your doctor about your options.

Some SSRIs such as Prozac are generally considered safe during pregnancy.

Research collected from 2500 pregnant women taking Prozac indicated no risk of congenital malformation. And antidepressant levels in nursing infants was shown to be lower than that which crosses the placenta during pregnancy, with no reports of short-term adverse reactions.

Though these risks are considered relatively safe during breastfeeding, only your doctor or health care professional can tell you for sure.

Many prefer to go with a more natural treatment route for depression, such as St. John's Wort. Again, your doctor can advise about this. She will also recommend against abruptly discontinuing medications since quickly withdrawing from antidepressants can cause side effects.

A Word about Postpartum Depression 

Postpartum Depression, sometimes called Perinatal Depression, refers to a broad range of emotional struggles that can range from mild to severe. 

The "Baby Blues," which usually disappears within a few days to within one or two weeks, is not the same as Perinatal Depression Symptoms and may include:

  •  sadness or anxiety mood swings
  • crying spells
  • excess worrying
  • difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty sleeping
  • irritability
  • generally not feeling yourself

Postpartum Depression (PPD) is more serious and lasts much longer.

Besides the symptoms of the Baby Blues, you may also find difficulty bonding with the baby, excessive crying spells, feelings of apathy, emotional withdrawal, feelings of worthlessness, and sometimes even feeling like the baby and family would be better off without you.

If these are present and last more than a couple of weeks, it is vital to encourage your partner to talk with a healthcare provider. In one study, fewer than 20% of women who experienced PPD even mentioned it to their healthcare provider.

But these factors can influence the development of baby after birth, for instance: contributing to psychological disorders in later life, early weaning off breastfeeding, infections, and malnutrition. They also threaten a mom's well-being and quality of life, so be sure this doesn't go overlooked.

Emergency resources include 911 and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).

About the author 

Dan Sperling

I'm the proud father of two great children. They are grown up now, and although I would have preferred to be a stay-at-home dad, I had to work. Luckily, I could work out of my home so I was around a lot. I ran a video production company, had a couple of great guys working with me and it allowed me to be around the children a lot. I was the "fun guy" for my kids and fathering was something I just took to.
When my daughter became pregnant, I was glad to see my son-in-law was doing everything right--or as good as it gets--we're always winging it, right? It got me thinking that so many dads would like to be more emotionally involved and knowledgeable when it comes to their wives' pregnancy and the first year of their children's lives.

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