Why Some Pregnant Moms Are Depressed

Twelve to 20 percent of pregnant women are depressed and need help for themselves and their unborn baby.

Why Me? Why Now?

African-American Woman in black jumpsuit with hands on belly

Leigh Ann Alexander always thought of herself as an upbeat, social person. Strangely enough, a happy event -- her first pregnancy -- changed all that. "I was nearing the end of the first trimester, and I became consumed with worry," says Alexander, who lives in Smithville, Texas. She stopped seeing friends, gave up exercising, and began indulging in junk food.

"I didn't want to go anywhere or do anything. I was very isolated and withdrawn," she says. "I was really surprised. I'd always thought that pregnancy would be a happy time." Unfortunately, Alexander is far from alone. Postpartum depression may grab all the headlines, but research shows that 12 to 20 percent of pregnant women are depressed. And the mother-to-be isn't the only one who suffers; depressed women are less likely to eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep. They're also more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and miss prenatal appointments, all of which can compromise the health of their unborn baby.

Even more worrisome: Depressed mothers-to-be are at greater risk for miscarriage, premature delivery, and delivering low birth weight babies. That's why getting the facts about depression -- and getting treatment -- are so important for your well-being and your baby's.

Why Me? Why Now?

Doctors once thought that all of those hormones rushing around a woman's body during pregnancy would shield her from depression. We now know that for some moms-to-be the opposite is true. But while experts agree that hormones play a role in depression, the exact mechanisms are unknown.

"It may be triggered by any number of physiologic or life stressors," says Sheila Marcus, MD, director of the Women's Depression Program at the University of Michigan Depression Center in the department of psychiatry. "In women with a genetic predisposition to depression, the hormone changes may be one of these stressors," Dr. Marcus says. Not surprisingly, a history of depression doubles the odds of its recurring during pregnancy.

Difficult life circumstances can bring on depression as well, says Diane Ashton, MD, associate medical director of the March of Dimes in White Plains, New York. "Women who feel they don't have marital support or social support are at greater risk," she says. Concerns about your baby's health, your changing body, and the impact motherhood will have on your life are also sources of stress that may impact your mood.

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