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Pregnancy Depression Affects Babies' Brains

depression during pregnancyNot so long ago, it was thought that hormones prevented depression during pregnancy, even causing existing conditions to miraculously vanish. But we now know that prenatal depression is as common as the postpartum version. At least 1 in 10 women (and as many as 1 in 5) are affected.  Which makes the following news pretty interesting:

A study finds that being depressed during pregnancy affects babies’ neurological development.  What’s not clear yet is whether the changes caused by depression during fetal development are good or bad for babies.

The study, published in the journal Infant Behavior and Development, found that babies born to mothers who had been depressed during pregnancy had higher levels of stress hormones, and lower muscle tone than babies born to mothers who weren’t depressed. But babies born do depressed mothers also had certain developmental advantages. They adjusted more quickly to stimuli, an indication of neurological maturity.

The study’s authors acknowledge that they have no idea if being born to a mother with prenatal depression creates an advantage or a disadvantage, neurologically speaking. “It’s difficult to say to what extent these differences are good or bad, or what impact they might have over a longer time frame,” says Sheila Marcus, MD, Clinical Director of University of Michigan’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Section and an author of the study.

Analyzing the long-term results of prenatal depression is complicated, as the mom’s psychological state after birth can either compensate for or exacerbate neurological changes. But this study aside, it’s known that depression during pregnancy is associated with risks to both moms and babies, mostly associated with poor self and prenatal care. So even if  further research suggests that babies born to depressed moms may acquire some compensatory neurological advantages, it’s important for women who experience depression during pregnancy to seek professional help to manage this condition. The study’s authors reinforce this recommendation.

photo: Sarah C/flickr

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