Pregnancy depression under-recognised

August 3, 2004


Depression during pregnancy was an important but under-recognised problem that could have major implications for babies' health, a post-natal depression expert said today.

Society failed to acknowledge that the mother's mental health was important to her baby's development, said psychiatrist Professor Bryanne Barnett, NSW coordinator of the National Postnatal Depression Program.

"Before you're born, the way your brain is developing is affected by the person who's providing you with your experiences and that's the mother," Prof Barnett said.

"If she isn't depressed and she isn't anxious then she's probably not smoking, not drinking, eating a reasonable diet, having a reasonable amount of exercise, looking after herself and getting attached to the baby.

"If she isn't feeling mentally well she may smoke heavily, doesn't eat properly, then the baby will be smaller because its head - its nervous system - isn't developing properly."

Depression and anxiety also affected the woman's hormones, which were in turn passed on to the baby.

"The foetus gets what the mother provides and if she's providing a lot of extra stressful hormones then there are lots of problems associated with that," Prof Barnett explained.

Many women were reluctant to admit they suffered anxiety or depression during pregnancy, she said.

"There isn't any culture which says it's okay to be unhappy when you're pregnant or you've got a new baby," Prof Barnett said.

"You're supposed to be delighted so it's quite hard to say to people `I know I've got this lovely baby but I feel dreadful'.

"One of the most important things about the perinatal situation is that everybody who's pregnant has to see the doctor or the nurse at least somewhere along the line so we really need to use that opportunity to ask a lot about the woman's wellbeing."

However, she said there were inadequate resources for treating those found to be suffering depression or anxiety during pregnancy.

"It's no good picking up a problem if you don't then have the resources to deal with it," Prof Barnett said.

Counselling, cognitive behaviour therapy, help coping with an older child and medication were all treatment options for perinatal depression.

"Lots of people are very hesitant to take medication during pregnancy and when they're breast feeding," Prof Barnett said.

"But there is a problem for the baby if you're depressed and anxious and don't do anything and we have to weigh up whether medication is the answer or whether there are other things we can do.

"Other things one can try are persuading the mother to eat properly, get some exercise, get some respite from the baby, explain to others how they can help her, then she might feel better."