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Pregnant and Depressed? Know When to Seek Help

Young pregnant lady looking out window

Anticipating the birth of a new baby is among the most exciting events in a woman’s life. But when joy turns to sadness, difficulty sleeping, and a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, the expectant mother wonders, “Why am I crying when I should be happy?”

It’s not uncommon for pregnant women to develop depression. According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), depression occurs in 14 to 23% of pregnant women. This number is believed to be much higher because many women feel ashamed, or think depression is part of being pregnant, and don’t report it.

Historically, depression among pregnant women and new mothers has been under recognized and undertreated. That’s why the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended (Jan. 2016) that all adults, especially pregnant women and new mothers, should be screened for depression by their doctor.

Causes of Depression During Pregnancy

A number of factors that can lead to increased risk for depression during pregnancy:

  • A personal and/or family history of depression.
  • A history of low mood prior to menstruation. This can be caused by hormonal changes that affect chemicals in the brain related to depression and anxiety.
  • Stressful life events such as financial troubles, loss of a loved one, relationship problems, or an unsupportive or violent partner.
  • Anxiety over the possible loss of the baby due to high-risk pregnancy, previous miscarriage, or difficulties becoming pregnant.
  • Adolescence—young pregnant women are more prone to depression.
  • Thyroid conditions that mimic symptoms of depression.

Untreated Depression Can Affect Mother and Baby

If depression goes untreated, women can experience poor weight gain and nutrition; increased fatigue and loss of functioning; use of medications including cigarettes and illegal drugs; disturbed sleep, insomnia or oversleeping; and poor prenatal care and health behaviors. Babies can be premature or underweight at birth.

Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing some of the following symptoms for two weeks or longer:

  • Sadness, restlessness, moodiness, or irritability.
  • Frequent crying.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Weight loss or weight gain beyond the target for your pregnancy.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy.
  • Trouble sleeping/restless sleep, or sleeping too much and having difficulty getting out of bed.
  • Loss of energy beyond what is normal for pregnancy.
  • Feelings of extreme guilt and worthlessness.
  • Having increased trouble concentrating or making decisions.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide.
  • Headaches, backaches, stomach problems, or other pain that is not normal for pregnancy.
  • Missing prenatal visits or not following medical instructions.
  • Using harmful substances like tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs.

Treatment Recommendations

Your doctor may recommend support groups; private psychotherapy; medication; light therapy (exposure to high intensity lamps that increase serotonin, a chemical important for mood balance); or acupuncture.

It is important to rest as much as possible. Talk to your doctor about eating a balanced diet and exercise. Please resist the temptation to withdraw from others. And spend time outdoors...especially on sunny days.

Click here for more resources from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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Cynthia Longenecker, MSW, LCW

Cynthia Longenecker, MSW, LCW, is a licensed clinical counselor with Lancaster General Health Women’s Specialty Center where she focuses on the unique behavioral health needs of women across ethnicities, ages and backgrounds.

Education: Master’s degree in Social Welfare–University of California at Los Angeles.

Call: 717-544-0700

About LG Health Hub

The LG Health Hub features breaking medical news and straightforward advice to help individuals of all ages make healthy choices and reach their wellness goals. The blog puts articles by trusted Lancaster General Health clinical experts, good 'n healthy recipes, videos, patient stories, and health risk assessments at your fingertips.


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