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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Pregnant with Depression

Q. I'm a college student from Puerto Rico. We are doing an investigation on depression in pregnancy and the effect of it on the unborn baby. Do you have any information that you can provide me on this topic?

A. Most research has focused on depression after delivery--so-called post-partum depression. Only in recent years have clinicians become aware that, for a significant number of women, depression during pregnancy (prenatal depression) may be a major problem. There are still fewer data on the effects of prenatal depression on the developing fetus or unborn baby. However, a recent review by Monk (Psychiatr Q 2001;72(4):347-357) suggests that stress, anxiety, and depression during pregnancy may have an impact on how the child develops.

Similarly, Field (Prev Med 1998 Mar;27(2):200-203) has summarized data showing that (1) maternal depression negatively affects infants as early as the neonatal period, implicating prenatal effects of maternal depression; (2) as early as birth the infants show a profile of dysregulation in their behavior, physiology, and biochemistry which probably derives from prenatal exposure to a biochemical imbalance in their mothers; and (3) these effects are compounded by the disorganizing influence of the depressed mother's interactive behavior with the neonate.

All this makes sense: after all, we know that serious depression has profound effects on both brain physiology and on stress hormones such as cortisol, and that the maternal and infant blood streams are essentially linked during pregnancy. It is not much of a stretch to hypothesize that the developing infant may be affected by these changes.

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November 2001
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