Depression, Anxiety Linked to Pre-Term Delivery
> 11/7/2008 5:42:43 PM

Nearly every expectant mother subject to the stresses and hormonal changes of pregnancy will go through a period of ultra-sensitive emotions, expectations and anxieties. Mental health conditions in new mothers very often appear before the post-partum period; anxiety and depression have proven more common both before and after one’s child is born.

These conditions may have unwanted effects on the course of each pregnancy. Pre-term delivery (after less than 37 weeks gestation) is common and usually leads to perfectly healthy newborns. But it occasionally complicates the birth process, and previous research implies that developmental issues are more common among pre-term children. A new study finds that women suffering from depression and anxiety are significantly more likely to deliver their babies pre-term.

Researchers at Kaiser Permanente’s California-based Research Institute surveyed nearly 800 women in the early stages of their pregnancies by presenting them with a 20-question, 60-point depression scale designed to identify the presence and severity of depressive symptoms. After tallying totals, researchers controlled results to eliminate the influence of education, income, previous pregnancies and other variables. In comparing the courses of the 791 pregnancies to the answers given on each respective survey, they made a startling conclusion: subjects who scored 16 or higher on the scale were 60% more likely to have given birth pre-term. Total early births more than doubled among those who scored over 21.  

The cause of such correlations is unclear, but an over-stressed body will almost certainly be less fit to carry a developing fetus to full-term. A 2007 British study that reached a near-identical conclusion drew a connection between the pre-term deliveries and an excessive amount corticotrophin, a natural hormonal product of bodily stress that is also secreted by the placenta, plays a crucial role in organ formation and has been “known to initiate birth.” They found that the 8-week-old newborns whose mothers had been depressed during pregnancy also had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva, hinting at a transfer of anxious tendencies. Of course reports like this can prove counterproductive – reading about such risks may only intensify the stresses of those who are expecting. Concerned parties should note that most of the pre-term babies in this earlier study were born only two or three days early.

The most important conclusion of the new study is that all mothers who suspect that they are suffering from clinical depression and/or anxiety should seek professional help. Many will understandably balk at the prospect of taking anti-depressant medications whose effects on developing fetuses are unclear. But many other forms of treatment exist, and the support of family, friends and mental health professionals is perhaps the most important variable. The act of discussing relevant psychiatric issues is an important first step in a chain to ensure the health of both mother and developing child. Mothers cannot hesitate to ask loved ones and professionals in order to avoid appearing “weak.” The study’s lead author states in a subsequent interview that he hopes the conclusions will “raise a red flag” about depression during pregnancy, an important and far-too-often dismissed condition that can have serious effects on mother and child.

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