Perinatal depression and the pediatrician’s role


Postpartum depression (PPD) is a common and treatable problem affecting over 10% of all pregnant women. Without routine use of a screening questionnaire, many women go undiagnosed and without treatment. The risks of untreated PPD in a new mother are the risks of depression tripled: to her health and to the health of her new infant and their whole family. Although pediatricians treat children, they take care of the whole family. They appreciate their role in offering support and guidance to new parents, and in the case of PPD, they are in a unique position. The American Academy of Pediatrics recognized this when they issued their policy statement, “Incorporating Recognition and Management of Perinatal Depression into Pediatric Practice,” in January 2019. By screening, tracking, and connecting affected mothers to care and services, you can truly provide “two-generational care” for your youngest patients.

Dr. Susan D. Swick, physician in chief at Ohana, Center for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health, Community Hospital of the Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula.

Dr. Susan D. Swick

PPD affects an estimated one in seven women (13%) globally. In one large retrospective study that looked at the 39 weeks before and after delivery, 15.4% of mothers received a diagnosis of PPD and a second study indicated that 22% of new mothers had depressive symptoms that were persistent for 6 months.1 The pathways to PPD include prior personal or family history of depression, stressors in the family (connected to social determinants of health), previous miscarriage or serious complications in a previous pregnancy, and sensitivity to hormonal changes. Indeed, PPD is the most common complication of childbirth.2 Although as many as half of all women eventually diagnosed with PPD had symptoms during their pregnancy, the misperception that PPD is only post partum leads to it being mistaken for the normal process of adjustment to parenthood. PPD is particularly insidious as new mothers are likely to be silent if they feel shame for not enjoying what they have been told will be a special and happy time, and those around them may mistake symptoms for the normal “baby blues” that will resolve quickly and with routine supports.

Untreated PPD, creates risks for mother, infant, and family as she manages needless suffering during a critical period for her new baby. While depression may remit over months without treatment, suicide is a real risk, and accounts for 20% of postpartum deaths.3 Infants face serious developmental consequences when their mothers are withdrawn and disconnected from them during the first months of life, including impaired social development, physical growth, and cognitive development. This impairment persists. Exposure to maternal depression during infancy is associated with lower IQ, attentional problems, and special educational needs by elementary school,4 and is a risk factor for psychiatric illnesses in childhood and adolescence.5,6 PPD has a broad range of severity, including psychosis that may include paranoia with the rare risk of infanticide. And maternal depression can add to the strains in a vulnerable caregiver relationship that can raise the risk for neglect or abuse of the mother, children, or both.

It is important to note that anxiety is often the presenting problem in perinatal mood disorders, with mothers experiencing intense morbid worries about their infant’s safety and health, and fear of inadequacy, criticism, and even infant removal. These fears may reinforce silence and isolation. But pediatricians are one group that these mothers are most likely to share their anxieties with as they look for reassurance. It can be challenging to distinguish PPD from obsessive-compulsive disorder or PTSD. The critical work of the pediatrician is not specific diagnosis and treatment. Instead, your task is to provide screening and support, to create a safe place to overcome silence and shame.

Dr. Michael S. Jellinek, professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston

Dr. Michael S. Jellinek

There are many reliable and valid screening instruments available for depression, but the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EDPS) has been specially developed for and tested in this population. It is a 10-item scale that is easy to complete and to score. Scores range from 0 to 30 and a score of 10 is considered a cutoff for depression. It can be used to track symptoms and is free and widely available online and in multiple languages. Ideally, this scale can be administered as part of a previsit, automatically entered into an electronic medical record and given at regular intervals during the infant’s first year of primary care. Some new mothers, especially if they are suffering from depression, may feel anxious about filling this out. It is important that your staff tell them that you screen all new mothers in your practice, and that PPD is common and treatable and the pediatrician’s office is committed to the health of the whole family.

If a new mother screens positive, you might consider yourself to have three tasks: Reassure her that she is a wonderful mother and this is a treatable illness, not a cause for guilt, shame, or alarm; expand her support and decrease her isolation by helping her to communicate with her family; and identify treatment resources for her. Start by being curious about some of her specific worries or feelings, her energy level, feelings of isolation or trouble with sleep. Offer compassion and validation around the pain of these experiences in the midst of so much transition. Only after hearing a little detail about her experience, then you may offer that such feelings are common, but when they are persistent or severe, they often indicate PPD, and that her screening test suggests they do for her. Offer that this form of depression is very treatable, with both pharmacologic and psychotherapy interventions. And if she is resistant, gently offer that treatment will be very protective of her new infant’s physical, social, and cognitive growth and development. Hearing this from a pediatrician is powerful for a new mother, even if depressed. Finally, ask if you might help her bring other important adults in her family into an understanding of this. Could she tell her spouse? Her sister? Her best friend? Perhaps she could bring one of them to the next weekly visit, so you can all speak together. This intervention greatly improves the likelihood of her engaging in treatment, and strong interpersonal connections are therapeutic in and of themselves.

For treatment, the easier your office can make it, the more likely she is to follow up. Identify local resources, perhaps through connected community organizations such as Jewish Family and Children’s Services or through a public program like California’s First Five. Connect with the local obstetric practice, which may already have a referral process in place. If you can connect with her primary care provider, they may take on the referral process or may even have integrated capacity for treatment. Identify strategies that may support her restful sleep, including realistic daily exercise, sharing infant care, and being cautious with caffeine and screen time. Identify ways for her to meet other new mothers or reconnect with friends. Reassure her that easy attachment activities, such as reading a book or singing to her baby can be good for both of them without requiring much energy. This may sound like a daunting task, but the conversation will only take a few minutes. Helping an isolated new parent recognize that their feelings of fear, inadequacy, and guilt are not facts, offering some simple immediate strategies and facilitating a referral can be lifesaving.

Dr. Swick is physician in chief at Ohana, Center for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health, Community Hospital of the Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula. Dr. Jellinek is professor of psychiatry and pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston. Email them at


1. Dietz PM et al. Am J Psychiatry. 2007;164(10):1515-20.

2. Hanusa BH et al. J Women’s Health (Larchmt) 2008;17(4):585-96.

3. Lindahl V et al. Arch Womens Ment Health. 2005;8(2):77-87.

4. Hay DF et al. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2001;42(7):871-89.

5. Tully EC et al. Am J Psychiatry. 2008:165(9):1148-54.

6. Maternal depression and child development. Paediatr. Child Health 2004;9(8):575-98.

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