The sad truth about prenatal depression

Feb 19, 2013 at 12:00 p.m. ET

You've probably heard about postpartum depression, but did you know women can suffer from depression during pregnancy? Whether you have certain risk factors for depression or if prenatal depression is the furthest thing from your mind, it could happen to you.

Woman with prenatal depression

Prenatal depression could happen to anyone and it's nothing to be ashamed about.

According to the March of Dimes, as many as one in five women suffers from depression during pregnancy. Prenatal depression can be hard to diagnose (or even figure out if you have) because many of the symptoms are similar to those of pregnancy in general, such as sleeping too much, loss of energy, difficulty concentrating or changes in appetite. More serious symptoms include lack of interest, feelings of guilt, thoughts or ideas about suicide.

What causes prenatal depression?

Deborah Gilboa, M.D. explains, "We've not identified one 'cause' of prenatal depression any more than we can say there is one cause of depression in general. However, we do know what makes it more likely and other contributing factors. Women with a history of mood disorders — depression, anxiety, bipolar — are at higher risk of experiencing depression during pregnancy."

Sometimes prenatal depression is a result of stress or a challenging pregnancy. Maureen, a mother of two, says, "I realize now that I became depressed shortly after getting a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome for my son. I didn't realize what I was experiencing was necessarily depression, though. I thought we were just having a hard time with discovering our unborn child had Down syndrome, just like anyone would."

Learn how stress affects your pregnancy >>

Is it safe to take anti-depressants during pregnancy?

There are no easy answers to this question.

If you already took medication for depression before getting pregnant, Gilboa advises not to stop before talking to your doctor. She explains, "Moms, dads and doctors need to weigh the risks and the benefits of using medicine to stabilize mood during pregnancy — it is often more beneficial than harmful."

Learn about a holistic approach to healing depression >>

If you're concerned about the risks of taking anti-depressants, be sure to get the information you need from your doctor or midwife so you can make an informed decision. Talk therapy with a counselor who specializes in prenatal issues may also help.

How can prenatal depression affect my baby and me?

Untreated prenatal depression could have adverse effects on your pregnancy, starting with poor — or lack of — prenatal care. If you're depressed, you may not have the energy or interest in going to regular appointments with your doctor or midwife. Not to mention, taking good care of yourself with proper nutrition and prenatal vitamins. These are just a few reasons why it's crucial to get help — don't be afraid or embarrassed to ask for it, whether from your doctor, midwife or a mental health professional.

Maureen says, "You cannot — and I repeat, cannot — just snap out of depression. It takes time, understanding, compassion and help."

As for your baby, Gilboa explains, "There are good studies that show that women with unchecked depression or anxiety during pregnancy have babies with low birth weight, preterm delivery, higher rates of C-section, pre-eclampsia, hypoglycemia and respiratory distress."

Bottom line? Arm yourself with resources in your community and a good support team just in case you experience depression during pregnancy. Maureen encourages moms-to-be to do the same. She says, "Talk to each other about depression before you experience it, even if it's just a, 'Hey, I don't think this will happen, but in case it does, can we talk about a plan?''

More about depression

5 Signs of prepartum depression
Light therapy appears effective for depression during pregnancy
Symptoms of postpartum depression