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Baby Blues

A mother's worries during pregnancy can affect brain developmentin her child.

A new mother's stress can harm fetal development, research shows.

Debbie Bretches' baby is due in just 10 days. But instead of knitting booties, Debbie, a graphic designer in Waynesboro, Virginia, is taking yoga classes and looking to her husband, Ross, to help her alleviate the stress of being pregnant and working full-time. "My husband's very supportive and tries to take the load off," she says. "Ross keeps the house clean and does my laundry, and he leaves me lots of little notes saying how proud he is of me and how much he loves me." Debbie's also spoken with her doctor about her risk of becoming depressed after the baby is born—a condition called postpartum depression.

Usually occurring within six months of giving birth, postpartum depression's symptoms include low mood and problems with appetite, sleep and energy that last for a few weeks. According to Michael O'Hara, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, pregnant women are especially vulnerable to depression because having a new baby represents a dramatic life change.

"The depression is complicated by the fact that the woman has a major new life responsibility," says O'Hara, and he notes that it may also affect how well a mother can care for her baby, making the postpartum period especially delicate. About 10% of women become depressed after giving birth, but O'Hara speculates that that number rises to 25% when additional risk factors like marital discord, job loss or loss of a loved one are present.

Luckily, a study by O'Hara and his colleagues has shown that interpersonal psychotherapy can help women who experience depression after having a baby. This therapy, which usually lasts 12 to 16 sessions, focuses mainly on interpersonal disputes and conflicts, as well as problems that the mothers may have in adapting to motherhood. In O'Hara's study of 120 new mothers, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, only 14% of untreated women recovered during the 12-week study period, compared with 44% of the women who underwent psychotherapy.

In addition to worrying about her own well-being, a pregnant woman must also consider how her health might affect her unborn baby, according to Jan K. Buitelaar, Ph.D., of the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands. In his study of 170 first-time mothers and their infants, presented at an annual meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists, Buitelaar found that infants who were exposed to prenatal maternal stress had lower mental development scores than infants with stress-free moms. A mother's fears of giving birth or the frequency of daily hassles produce stress hormones that may enter fetal circulation, Buitelaar explains, which may affect fetal brain development directly or alter the stress system of the fetus. However, the researchers aren't sure whether this effect is permanent.

Buitelaar emphasizes that, as with depression, fears surrounding the birth of a baby are universal in pregnancy and should be recognized and addressed. So if you're expecting, take a tip from Debbie Bretches—do some calming moves in yoga class and cut stress and postpartum depression off at the pass.