How Does Stress & Depression Affect Your Unborn Child?


With between 10 and 20% of women will experience depression during their pregnancy. When this isn’t addressed it can present a risk to both mother and child. Obstetricians will take reports of depression seriously and may recommend treatment or even medication.

If left untreated, the consequences can range from not taking care of yourself, to taking an illicit substance (addiction can be a type of toxic, “self treatment”), alcohol or prescription drug abuse, all the way to suicidal thoughts and attempts. Mothers may not feel they have enough energy to care for themselves or their child and the situation can carry on after the baby is born.

Depression can have consequences for the baby

When the mother’s health is impaired by depression, this then translates into consequences for the baby, including premature birth or low birth weight. It is also known that the offspring of depressed mothers are themselves more likely to become depressed at some point in their lives. Infants of depressed mothers are also more likely to be agitated and irritable.

It would be too much to ask for to expect a stress-free pregnancy. Thoughts about the unborn child and how to provide for baby after the birth only add to existing stressors. When there is a career that has to be put on hold or other children in the mix, stress can rise to unacceptable levels.

A direct connection between fetal development and the emotional state of the mother has not been clearly demonstrated. Scientists are, however, becoming more interested in fetal development and how life in the womb adds to genetic predisposition. Certainly we know that substances mothers encounter can have direct effects on the unborn child, so it makes sense that stress hormones would as well.

An example would be the hormone cortisol. This so-called “stress hormone” is released naturally in a response to stress and short-term, it isn’t thought to cause any problems. When stress is chronic, as in depression, the level remains at an unhealthy and elevated level. Since the unborn child is exposed to this, it may lead to developmental changes that will last a lifetime. Remember the environment for the fetus is the womb and it shares the internal environment, including hormones that the mother does. Not all substances cross the placenta, but many do.

Since many of our emotions are driven by hormones, in some ways the unborn child is participating in the emotions you feel.

Watch out for the trap of using the pregnancy as a way to inflate the symptoms of depression. Certainly being pregnant can make you more fatigued and you can lose your appetite. But those can also be symptoms of depression as well. Don’t let the depression trick you into not taking care of yourself and your child. Get help before it goes too far.

There are medications that can be used for depression during pregnancy, and simply talking things out with a professional can sometimes work wonders. Just don’t ignore the problem or dismiss it.

Photo by John Nyboer


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