Health & Fitness

Impact of a depressed woman on unborn child

pregnant woman
It is common for most women to ignore the condition whilst assuming that it is a normal pregnancy. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Pregnancy is usually a joy for many women who desire to have children so as to make their families ‘complete’.

However, it may come with a myriad of challenges such as hormonal changes, mood swings, physical discomfort, health complications and feelings of uncertainties (for the future) that could take a toll on expectant women, leading to depression.

But due to low awareness on mental illnesses in the country, it is common for most women to ignore the condition whilst assuming that it is a normal pregnancy symptom.

Health experts caution that without treatment and proper management for depression, the illness can have detrimental effects to the mother and unborn child.

A new study conducted by King’s College London reveals that the physiological impacts of depression on pregnant mothers may affect unborn babies by leading to changes in their behaviour and biology. This makes them vulnerable to the mental condition.

According to the research, the behavioural and biological changes are linked to depression-induced inflammation.

Consequently, the researchers suggest this could explain why children born to mothers with depression have a higher risk of developing depression as adults.

During the study, the researchers recruited women who were 25 weeks pregnant. Forty nine of them had major depressive disorders while 57 were healthy.

­­­­After 27 weeks, the researchers took blood from the women so as to measure inflammation and assess the impact of depression on their bodies.

In addition, saliva samples were taken at 32 weeks and used to measure levels of cortisol (the main stress hormone) in the bodies of these women.

Blood test results from depressed women showed increased levels of body inflammation. This indicated that the condition exerted pressure on the bodies of affected mothers just as infections usually do. In addition, saliva samples collected showed high levels of cortisol. After delivery, the researchers went further to gauge their babies’ abilities to cope with stress at six days old.

They did this by assessing their level of alertness and response to stimuli such as noise and light using the Neonatal Behavioural Assessment Scale (NBAS).

At less than a week old, children born to mothers with depression in pregnancy had poorer performances than those of healthy women.

These infants were also found to have higher cortisol levels, at one year following vaccination. This indicated that they were more reactive to stress.

The findings of the study were published in the Psychoneuroendocrinology journal. Maureen Onyango, consultant counselling psychologist and lecturer at Daystar University notes that to prevent depression during pregnancy, women need to first learn and understand their bodies and feelings.

“It is true that moods keep changing during pregnancy. However it’s important for women to differentiate between normal pregnancy blues and symptoms of depression. This will enable them seek help early.”

Ms Onyango stated that depending of the severity of the symptoms, some mothers may need medication.

“But this decision has to be reached by the doctor or psychiatrist to ensure that any medicine used does not harm the mother and the unborn child.”

Psychotherapy or targeted counselling sessions are also recommended for pregnant women with depression. “This usually involves discussions on possible triggers of the depression. The affected people are then trained on positive thinking and taught how to develop problem solving skills so as to prevent stress from turning into depression.’’

When feeling low, Ms Onyango stated that mothers should avoid being idle and instead engage in activities that will improve their moods like going to movies.

According to her, women with a history of depression as well as those that lack support during pregnancy have a high risk of developing depression during pregnancy and should thus be assisted.

Maternal anxiety especially for first time mothers as well as those who have had a previous miscarriage can also lead to depressive thoughts.

“They may worry about whether they are eating right or doing everything possible to safeguard the child’s health and prevent death,” said Ms Onyango.

She added that depression may also be triggered by tragic events that occur when a mother is pregnant such as death of a loved one, loss of employment, broken relationships or domestic violence.

“Antenatal depression is common, however, it is also easily diagnosed and treated. This study highlights the importance of pregnant mothers seeking treatment for clinical depression, as it could have long-term beneficial effects for children,” said Dr Sarah Osborne, first author of the study and senior researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King's College London.