Clinical Review

Perinatal depression: what you can do to reduce its long-term effects

Author and Disclosure Information

New data show that a woman’s antenatal depression can affect her child 18 years later, suggesting that early intervention is critical. Here, a look at how ObGyns can help.



We’ve come a long way in our understanding of depression—and that’s a good thing. Consider the treatments popular in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, for example, which included water immersion (short of drowning), spinning (to reorder the contents of the brain), and the induction of vomiting and administration of enemas, not to mention institutionalization.1 These modalities wouldn’t attract many patients (or clinicians) today.

And yet, even our distant forebears had some inkling of the potential for depression to continue from one generation to the next. As Trotula of Salerno noted around the 11th Century:

If the womb is too moist, the brain is filled with water, and the moisture running over the eyes compels them to involuntarily shed tears.2

In other words, melancholy (aka depression) sometimes has its origins in the womb.

From our 21st Century vantage point, we understand this conclusion in more scientific terms. Data suggest than 14% to 23% of pregnant women will experience depressive symptoms during pregnancy,3 with the potential for long-term effects in the child. In the largest study to date on the effects of antenatal and postnatal parental depression on offspring, Pearson and colleagues found that children of mothers who are depressed during pregnancy are likely to experience depression themselves at age 18.4 Specifically, for each standard-deviation increase in the antenatal maternal depression score, offspring were 1.28 times more likely to have depression at age 18 (95% confidence interval [CI], 1.08–1.51; P = .003).4

Related Article: A talk about, then a plan for, antidepressants in pregnancy Danielle Carlin, MD, and Louann Brizendine, MD (May 2011)

Maternal depression in the postnatal period also was found to be a risk factor for depression in offspring, but only among mothers with “low education” (defined as either no education or compulsory education ending at or before age 16).4 For each standard-deviation increase in the postnatal maternal depression score in this population, offspring were 1.26 times more likely to have depression at age 18, compared with the children of nondepressed women (95% CI, 1.06–1.50; P = .01).4

Although antenatal depression in fathers was not associated with an increased incidence of depression in offspring, postnatal depression was—but only when the fathers had low education.4

As for the mechanism of transmission of depression from parent to child? Although Pearson and colleagues did not attempt to identify it, they did observe that the differential effects of maternal and paternal antenatal depression—with only maternal depression having an impact on offspring—suggest that, in pregnancy, maternal depression may be transmitted to her child “through the biological consequences of depression in utero.”4

Clearly, if it goes unchecked during pregnancy, maternal depression has the potential to ravage the life of both mother and child. In this article, I review guidance on the management of depression in pregnancy from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA), and I offer insights from a perinatal psychiatrist on how ObGyns might adjust their practices to reduce the impact of depression on both mother and infant.

In a joint report on depression and pregnancy from ACOG and the APA, Yonkers and colleagues noted that low birth weight, neonatal irritability, and diminished neonatal activity and attentiveness are among the adverse reproductive outcomes that have been associated with untreated maternal depression.3 Reproductive outcomes are more dire if maternal depression is severe or if the mother has bipolar disorder or postpartum psychosis, potentially including infanticide or death from suicide.5

Pregnancy complications such as vomiting, nausea, hyperemesis gravidarum, and preeclampsia appear to occur more frequently in depressed women than in nondepressed women, according to the ACOG/APA report,3 although this finding is based on limited data, notes Leena P. Mittal, MD, director of the Reproductive Psychiatry Consultation Service at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

“The trouble with those studies in general is the difficulty of controlling for both the severity of depression and the effects of treatment of depression—or the effects of treatment versus effects of the illness itself,” she says.

That difficulty is compounded by the likely use of multiple medications—
including nonpsychiatric agents—during pregnancy, “which makes it difficult to assess the impact of a single compound, such as an antidepressant, on maternal and fetal outcomes,” according to ACOG and the APA.3 (More than 80% of pregnant women take at least one dose of a medication.3)

Because of the potential for adverse short- and long-term effects of perinatal ­depression, “there is a need to identify it and attempt to address it prior to the postpartum period,” Dr. Mittal says. “If a woman has depressive symptoms during pregnancy, it is important to try to direct her toward treatment—either by initiating treatment yourself or referring her to a psychiatrist or psychiatric care provider before she enters the postpartum period.” Once she’s postpartum, she will be exposed to additional variables that will influence the severity and duration of her depression, Dr. Mittal says.


Next Article:

Learning and feedback reduce cesarean section rate

Related Articles