Pregnant lady holding her stomach

Expecting a baby can be one of the most exciting times in a person’s life but for some women, struggling with their mental health can mean that it’s not as enjoyable as it could be.

There are a number of different ways pregnancy can affect a woman’s emotional wellbeing including perinatal depression.

What is perinatal depression?

Perinatal depression occurs during pregnancy and affects between 10% and 20% of women and can begin during any stage of pregnancy. Although some women develop perinatal depression during just one of their pregnancies, others may experience repeated episodes.

During pregnancy it is common for a mum-to-be to feel tired, have trouble sleeping, and not feel themselves emotionally. Women can suffer with perinatal depression without even realising it. Symptoms of perinatal depression can include:

  • Frequent tearfulness without any identifiable reason
  • Trouble sleeping (unrelated to frequent urination)
  • Daily fatigue or low energy
  • Mood changes
  • Irritability
  • Changes in appetite
  • A loss of enjoyment in once pleasurable activities
  • Withdrawal from friends and family members
  • A pervasive sense of fear or anxiety without a known trigger
  • Trouble feeling connected to the developing baby (sometimes referred to as poor foetal attachment)
  • A fear of not loving the baby when he or she arrives.

What causes perinatal depression?

If you’ve experienced depression prior to pregnancy, your symptoms may be more significant during pregnancy than they were. Although, this is not to say that women who have experienced depression will invariably develop perinatal depression. Other causes of perinatal depression include:

  • The pregnancy is unexpected or undesired
  • A difficult relationship with the baby’s father
  • Stress during pregnancy such as financial worries, bereavement or housing problems
  • Age (approximately 50% of teenage mums-to-be experience perinatal depression)
  • Limited support from a partner, friends or family members
  • A ‘high-risk’ pregnancy or concerns about the baby’s health
  • A history of depression, panic disorder, anxiety or premenstrual tension (PMT)
  • A family history of perinatal depression
  • A history of depression when using hormonal contraceptives such as birth control pills
  • A history of trauma or abuse during childhood or adolescence.

What can help if you have perinatal depression?

If you have a history of mental health issues such as bipolar disorder, depression or anxiety and are planning for a baby, speak to your GP for advice. If you’re currently on medication for your mental health, it’s important that you don’t stop without seeking medical advice.

Your doctor can arrange for you to be monitored appropriately when you become pregnant, throughout your pregnancy, and after your baby arrives. This is not to say that your doctor will see you as ‘high risk’ but that there will be certain types of support from which you will benefit.

Regardless of whether or not you have a history of mental health issues, it’s crucial that you let your doctor know if you start to develop symptoms of emotional distress while pregnant, or you feel you’re not coping as well as you would like.

Prenatal care isn’t just about keeping your baby healthy – it’s about maintaining your wellbeing too. Make sure that you attend all of your prenatal appointments, and let your doctor know if you’re feeling unwell, either emotionally or physically. The earlier you get help, the better for both you and your baby.

It’s also really important to eat well throughout your pregnancy. A balanced diet will benefit both your wellbeing and that of your baby.

Treatments for perinatal depression

Don’t attempt to treat perinatal depression without the advice and support of your GP. They will be able to advise you on the best course of action, and also rule out other possible causes for how you’re feeling. Depending on your health history and stage of pregnancy, you might be offered the following:

Your GP may suggest local support groups, appointments with the surgery’s nurse practitioner, or other types of help.

You can also find support and guidance through the following specialist charities:

APNI - The Association for Post Natal illness

The National Childbirth Trust

The PANDAS Foundation