Depression During Pregnancy May Predict Parenting Stress
> 4/30/2008 12:44:54 PM

Feelings of stress and anxiety often accompany the happiness and excitement surrounding an impending birth, and it is not uncommon for women to experience depression during pregnancy as well as after. New research from the University of Melbourne in Australia indicates the extent to which depression can affect the future well-being of pregnant women and their families. By questioning women during and after their pregnancies, the researchers found that depression experienced during pregnancy may contribute to continued depression and higher levels of family tension.

In their study, which appears in BMC Psychiatry, the researchers examined risk factors for depression occurring during pregnancy (antenatal depression), depression occurring after pregnancy (postnatal depression), and parental stress. In addition to studying many factors implicated in depression– prior health history, predisposing characteristics, life events– they also focused on how antenatal depression, postnatal depression, and parenting stress could fuel one another. To discover the effects of these factors on health and parenting outcomes, they surveyed 367 Australian women during their 26th and 32nd weeks of pregnancy. 161 of the women completed the survey again 10 to 12 weeks after giving birth.

Seven risk factors contributed substantially to antenatal depression– anxiety during pregnancy, low self-esteem, little social support, low income, stressful life events, negative cognitive style, and a history of abuse. Fewer factors influenced the development of postnatal depression. Tellingly, antenatal depression had the most significant influence on whether a woman would experience depression after birth, although concurrent parenting stress and a prior history of depression also played a role. In terms of parenting stress, however, the researchers found that postnatal depression was the only significant risk factor. Antenatal depression did not have a direct impact on the levels of stress affecting new parents, but these results illustrate that postnatal depression may serve as a connecting bridge between depression experienced during pregnancy and parents' difficulty coping with the stress of parenthood.

This study was not without flaws, however, and continued research is necessary to more fully understand the relationships between depression and parental stress. Notably, the researchers did not investigate whether the subjects' depressive symptoms first started during their pregnancy or were present beforehand, and women counted as having antenatal depression may have been depressed prior to becoming pregnant. Future studies should examine how the timing of depressive symptoms affects health outcomes. Depressive episodes beginning during pregnancy, before pregnancy, and after pregnancy may last different lengths of time and have varying influences on parents' continued health and the ways in which they handle stress.

Despite these limitations, the study's results demonstrate the importance of maintaining good mental health during pregnancy and afterwards, as mental distress experienced after pregnancy can contribute to parenting stress and vice versa. Early treatment for pregnant women who become depressed can prevent or diminish these adverse outcomes, and these steps may go a long way to reducing the tension they feel as new parents.

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