Depression in Pregnancy Linked to Depression in Babies Later in Life

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Mom’s depression during pregnancy can result in babies who grow up to be unhappy as well. Img by aophotos.

New research shows that depression in pregnant women increases the risk of their children becoming depressed as teenagers.

According to a study led by Rebecca Pearson, PhD, at the University of Bristol in England, the children of women with prenatal depression are 1.28 times more likely to experience depression at age 18 than children whose mothers were not depressed during pregnancy. The researchers based their evaluations on self-reported information by more than 4500 parents and their teenaged children.

The authors of the study are unsure of the reason for the findings. They offered the hypothesis that depression causes a rise the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. The cortisol passes through the placenta to the growing fetus, directly affecting the development of the fetus’s nervous system.

Alternately, the genetic nature of depression and other mental illnesses might also explain the eventual onset of depression in the children of prenatally depressed women.

Understanding Prenatal Depression

Prenatal depression is a form of clinical depression that occurs any time during a woman’s pregnancy. While pregnant women typically experience changes to their moods, sleep and eating habits, and memory, prenatal depression is marked by more extreme transformations that severely interfere with the pregnant woman’s everyday functioning.

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Symptoms of prenatal depression include thoughts of death or suicide, persistent sadness, and feelings of guilt or failure. Thoughts of dread about the pregnancy, feelings of emotional numbness, extreme irritability, and the inability to concentrate are other trademark signs of this condition.

Depression During Pregnancy is a Common Problem

Researchers at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada reviewed surveys of 43,093 adults to learn about rates of prenatal depression. The researchers, led by Y. Le Strat, found that overall, 12.4% of women experience major depression during pregnancy. They noted that women who had a history of psychiatric disorders were significantly more likely to develop prenatal depression.

The researchers also saw that divorced, widowed, separated or never-married pregnant women were prone to depression. Not surprisingly, the anxiety related to pregnancy complications seems to create higher levels of prenatal depression, as well.

Lack of social support is a risk factor for prenatal depression. Image by grietgriet.

Risk Factors for Pregnancy Depression

A 2010 study by University of Michigan researchers delved into risk factors for depressive symptoms during pregnancy. The study, led by C. Lancaster, reviewed numerous articles related to pregnancy, depression and risk factors. They, too, found that stress, anxiety and a history of depression lead to prenatal depression. Additionally, lower income, lower educational level, and poor quality of relationship with one’s partner were likely to contribute to depression. Life stressors, a lack of social support, and domestic violence had strong associations with the development of depression as well.

Across the globe, in Pakistan, researchers reached similar conclusions. In a 2012 article in Scientific World Journal, Pakistani researchers, led by Niloufer Ali, reported factors related to depression in pregnant women. Like the Canadian researchers, this group found that a lack of social support, as well poor social relations with husband and in-laws, were strong depression risk factors. Domestic violence, in the form of sexual, physical and verbal abuse, were highly associated with prenatal depression and anxiety.

In other words, pregnant women are vulnerable to negative social environments.

Get Help if You’re Depressed

All of the research about prenatal depression points to the need for timely intervention. Depression during pregnancy not only erodes the health of the mother, but can ultimately lead to the development of depression in the child.

Given the prevalence of anxiety and depression during pregnancy, screening for mental health issues should become an integral part of the prenatal health system. Caregivers should screen all pregnant women for mental health issues, with special attention to those who have poor social support systems, and those with a history of depression. Doctors and nurses should refer Moms who have risk factors for depression to mental health providers who can offer support and practical interventions.


Ali, N., et. al. Frequency and Associated Factors for Anxiety and Depression in Pregnant Women: A Hospital-Based Cross-Sectional Study. (2012). Scientific World Journal. Accessed October 11, 2013.

Lancaster, C., et. al. Risk factors for depressive symptoms during pregnancy: a systematic review.  American Journal of Obstetric Gynecology. (2011). American Journal of Obstetrics and Glynecology, Accessed October 11, 2013.

Le Strat, Y., et. al. Prevalence and correlates of major depressive episode in pregnant and postpartum women in the United States. (2011). Journal of Affective Disorders. Accessed October 11, 2013.

Pearson, R., et. al. Maternal Depression During Pregnancy and the Postnatal Period Risks and Possible Mechanisms for Offspring Depression at Age 18 Years. (2013). Jama Psychiatry. Accessed October 11, 2013.

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