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Depression In Pregnancy—How To Keep It From Harming the Baby

Try this surprising non-pill treatment a pregnant mom, or anyone, can use.

(c) maximkabb/fotosearch
Pregnant at last! But...
Source: (c) maximkabb/fotosearch

You are pregnant, and so pleased to be able to "be fruitful and multiply." You are trying hard to do all you can to stay healthy so nothing you eat or do can harm the developing baby. At the same time, you've long been challenged from time to time with depressed feelings and this is one of those times. Your energy level is down. You struggle to get yourself to do even the most basic of tasks. Nothing looks or feels fun any more. You hear yourself responding to things you say and do with an uncharacteristically negative voice. "That was dumb!" or "I shouldn't have ...!" You are irritable with others, especially your spouse. Whatever he does rubs you wrong. That's depression. But what are your options? Does it matter to the developing baby if you have been feeling depressed?

You agreed with your obstetrician's suggestion that you stay clear of antidepressant medications unless you are so overcome with depression that you can't function. Okay, you'll schlog through the remainder of the nine months however depressed you may feel in order to make sure that medications don't hurt the baby.

Now alas, here's more bad news. In a recent study of mother-infant dyads reported at the end of this past month in the online Aug 27, 2018 version of JAMA Pediatrics, researchers found that depression in pregnancy doesn't just pose a challenge to the mother. It also may alter the brain of the developing child. Brain changes could give the child a lifelong difficulty! Oh no!

Douglas Dean III of the University of Wisconsin-Madison was the lead researcher. Of the 101 women in the study, some had major depressive reactions, some were moderately depressed, and some suffered only modes depressed moods. When these mothers' babies were one month of age, researchers looked at MRI studies of their brains. Unfortunately, those whose mothers had experienced moderate to severe depression showed less white brain matter development.

Many studies prior had associated a pregnant mother's depression with behavior problems in their eventual children. This study was the first to identify actual brain changes.

What can be done in response to this potential harm to the infant from a pregnant woman's depression?

On the one hand, the data is unclear about whether or not antidepressant medications harm the developing fetus. Pills are a gamble.

On the other hand, the good news is that there are multiple non-pill treatments with strong track records for depression relief. Here's a few for starters:

1. Sleep. If you are pregnant or post-partum, find a way to get far more sleep.

2. Marriage help: If your depression has something to do with how you and your husband interact, get help. Take a marriage ed course to be sure that your relationship is healthy. Read books on healthy couple interactions to make sure that your dialogue and decision-making are win-win, not dominant-submissive. Try couples therapy. Often, fixing the marriage fixes a depression.

3. Do this visualization: Depression generally gets triggered in response to feeling frustrated, irritated or even outright mad in a situation in which you feel there's nothing you can do to get what you want.

See the video below for what you can do about it.

4. Find a therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has a strong track record. So does psychodynamic treatment that helps you to understand what in your past may be making you vulnerable now to depressed feelings. Find a therapist you like and go for it.

5. Do self-help. For starters, check out the videos here. My book Prescriptions Without Pills also can give you tips for understanding both what causes depression and how to get out of it.

The bottom line about brain development of a baby and a pregnant mother's depression.

If you are feeling down, and especially if you have been feeling moderately to seriously depressed, get help. Do something that will help you to feel better and the baby's brain to develop in a fully healthy way. And above, keep reminding yourself that there are many effective forms of treatment now for depression. The situation is not hopeless. It just requires action.


Douglas C. Dean III, PhD1; Elizabeth M. Planalp, PhD1,2; William Wooten, MS3; et al Steven R. Kecskemeti, PhD1; Nagesh Adluru, PhD1; Cory K. Schmidt, BA1,3; Corrina Frye, BS3; Rasmus M. Birn, PhD4,5; Cory A. Burghy, PhD3; Nicole L. Schmidt, MS1; Martin A. Styner, PhD6,7; Sarah J. Short, PhD3; Ned H. Kalin, MD1,2,5; H. Hill Goldsmith, PhD1,2; Andrew L. Alexander, PhD1,4,5; Richard J. Davidson, PhD (August 27, 2018). Association of Prenatal Maternal Depression and Anxiety Symptoms With Infant White Matter Microstructure. JAMA Pediatrics (online)

JAMA Pediatr. Published online August 27, 2018. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.2132

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