Prenatal depression — also sometimes referred to as perinatal depression — is depression during pregnancy. While it isn’t talked about nearly as often as postpartum depression, research shows it affects about 10 to 15% of pregnant American women each year. Experts suspect that the true number is actually much greater, however, since many women are hesitant to discuss the depressive symptoms they experience during pregnancy with friends, family members, doctors, or therapists.

Prenatal depression affects women in all stages of pregnancy, and it can have a significant impact on quality of life. This depressive disorder goes far beyond having the baby blues or the typical mood swings often associated with pregnancy. It involves feelings of great sadness, anxiety, and a host of other negative emotions. 

The good news is that prenatal depression symptoms typically respond well to treatment, so if you or someone you know is feeling depressed while pregnant, know that there’s treatment available. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and risk factors of prenatal depression is key, and learning about treatment options is critical if you see any signs of prenatal depression. Keep reading to learn more. 

Causes of Prenatal Depression

Experts aren’t clear about the causes of depression. However, most are united in one thing: the belief that it’s generally not caused by something an expectant mother does or doesn’t do. 

According to the Academy of American Pediatrics, pregnancy anxiety and depression along with postpartum anxiety and depression aren’t caused by actions or inactions of the mother. They’re medical conditions and are likely the result of a combination of emotional, physical, and environmental contributors.

“Prenatal depression is relatively common, and having a history of depression prior to pregnancy may put you at increased risk of developing depression during and following pregnancy. Seeking support and therapy during pregnancy is an excellent option to help you create a postpartum wellness plan.”

Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD

Although we don’t know the exact causes, prenatal depression does seem to be more prevalent in certain women. The following can result in an increased risk of developing depressive symptoms during pregnancy.

  • Having a personal or family history of depression
  • Pregnancy with twins or multiples
  • Having a weak or nonexistent support system
  • Having a pregnancy that was unplanned 
  • Having had a previous difficult pregnancy or birth experience

Signs of Prenatal Depression

If you suspect that yourself or a loved one is experiencing depression during pregnancy, knowing the signs is a good way to ensure you catch things before they get out of hand. 

Early and effective intervention is the best way to make sure a pregnant woman experiencing depression doesn’t worsen. Once you know what to watch for, you’ll be able to then start identifying triggers so you can find ways to manage or avoid people or situations that might be contributing to your depressed state. 

Prenatal depression symptoms to look out for include:

  • Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Being exhausted 
  • Not wanting to get out of bed
  • Experiencing memory issues
  • Having an inability to focus on a task
  • Frequent crying
  • Isolating from friends and family
  • Experiencing dramatic and unpredictable mood swings
  • Changes in eating habits (eating much more than usual, or very little)
  • Sudden sleeping issues (sleeping too much or not at all)  
  • Having frequent or near-constant headaches and muscle aches
  • Feeling anxiety, fear, and nervousness
  • Poor fetal attachment (feeling disconnected from the baby)

Risks and Complications

Prenatal depression isn’t just unpleasant — it can cause both child health issues along with health issues for the mother. For example, not eating well (or at all) can result in low energy for the mom and inadequate nutrition for the baby. 

Depression can also cause expectant mothers to cancel or postpone doctor’s visits and, in extreme cases, possibly abuse alcohol and drugs. What’s more, depression during pregnancy has been linked to numerous additional risks for babies and their birth outcomes, including low birth weight, preterm birth, and being less active, less attentive, and more irritable. 

Perhaps most concerning is that depression in pregnancy has been linked to behavioral, developmental, and learning problems, as well as future mental health conditions for babies. 

“Unacknowledged depression during pregnancy can often lead to continued depression during your postpartum phase. Know that you are not alone if you’re experiencing depression during pregnancy. You are not broken, and you are not a bad parent. There are a lot of evidence-based treatments that can help if you’re interested in seeking therapy.”

Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD

Treatment for Prenatal Depression

Fortunately, when it comes to how to treat depression, multiple forms of treatment have been found to help reduce prenatal depression symptoms. A health care provider can help you decide which is best for your situation. Often a combination of treatments is the most effective option.

Therapy

Psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy) is one of the first treatments for prenatal depression that’s usually suggested. While there are many forms of therapy for depression to choose from, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) are both commonly used and known for their efficacy. 

Medication

Medication is sometimes recommended, either alone or in conjunction with therapy and other types of treatment, to ease the symptoms of prenatal depression. Several medications are safe for a pregnant woman or breastfeeding mother.  

In general, many different selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been found to be safe both during and after pregnancy. Your doctor can discuss the benefits and side effects of different medications with you. 

Lifestyle changes and other alternative treatments

Changes in lifestyle and alternative treatments can be beneficial in treating prenatal depression, either alone or in conjunction with medication or therapy. One study done by doctors and psychiatrists found several effective tools that can help alleviate symptoms of prenatal depression. 

  • Diet: Eating foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and flaxseed, has been shown to help relieve depression.
  • Exercise: Moderate exercise is a helpful way to manage your emotions and fight depression.
  • Massage: Massage therapy can be helpful in easing symptoms of prenatal depression and improving relaxation.
  • Self care: Taking time for yourself is always a good idea. If you’re feeling depressed during or after pregnancy, it’s even more essential that you do small things to take care of yourself. 

The same research also found that alternative methods of treatment might be effective, too. You might want to consider trying things like bright light therapy (exposure to timed sessions of intense light) or acupuncture (the ancient Chinese treatment that uses tiny needles on key pressure points). 

If prenatal depression is left untreated, it may develop into postpartum depression, anxiety, or even postpartum psychosis. Feeling depressed while you’re pregnant and after you’re pregnant is much more common than many people realize. The good news is you don’t have to suffer or be embarrassed about the way you’re feeling. 

There are several very effective forms of treatment that can result in you feeling like your old self again, so you’re able to enjoy your pregnancy. Talkspace is an online therapy platform that can help you manage any of the above signs of prenatal depression. Check out this easy-to-use platform today, so that you can quickly and conveniently get the help you need.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Karmen Smith, LCSW, DD

Reviewed On: June 10, 2022