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Maternal Depression

The term maternal depression encompasses a range of conditions that can affect women during pregnancy and up to one year postpartum. This spectrum of conditions includes prenatal depression, the "baby blues," postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. Although it takes several forms, its main symptom is an enduring and deep feeling of sadness and unhappiness, lasting in some cases for months or even years. Maternal depression can cause a great deal of sadness and rob a mother of her energy, motivation and enthusiasm for parenting. It also can lead to hopelessness, self-doubt, confusion and guilt over not being the kind of parent she wants to be.

Maternal depression can also be considered a family issue and not one relating to just the mother. When a mother experiences depression, her symptoms can have an effect on the entire family as well in many ways. 

The onset of this depression usually comes as a surprise, and not many mothers may know at first that they are experiencing it. Certain mothers seem more likely to become depressed, such as those who have been clinically depressed at some point in the past or who have depressed family members. This kind of depression may also be triggered by the pronounced swings in hormone production that occur after the birth of the child. During pregnancy, production of the female hormones (estrogen and progesterone) increases significantly. However, within the first 24 hours after the birth, these hormones plunge to normal levels. This rapid change may result in depression.

Maternal Depression can cause the following symptoms:

  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Profound sadness and frequent crying
  • Withdrawing from loved ones and social isolation
  • Feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness
  • Loss of motivation and interest in normal activities
  • Irregular sleep patterns and constant fatigue
  • Lack of interest in one’s self or children

The most common risk factor for maternal depression is a previous episode of prenatal or postpartum depression. Other factors associated with maternal depression include:

  • personal or family history of anxiety, depression or other mood disorders, including prenatal or postpartum depression;
  • current or past history of alcohol or other substance abuse;
  • life stress, poor quality or no relationship with the baby's father, lack of social support or absence of a community network;
  • unplanned or unwanted pregnancy;
  • difficult pregnancy or delivery, including preterm birth, multiple births, miscarriage or stillbirth, birth defects or disabilities or other pregnancy complications;
  • maternal age <24 years of age;
  • lower maternal socioeconomic status.

While the above factors have been associated with a higher risk for maternal depression, depression also occurs among women without these risk factors.

It is thus important that early intervention and treatment be given to the mother. Maternal depression is highly treatable and early identification and treatment can help restore a mother’s livelihood, well-being, attitude and outlook on life. There are a number of effective treatments that exist for maternal depression, including traditional cognitive and interpersonal therapies, medication, peer support as well as support groups. However, the approaches that benefit children the most focus on building a stronger mother-child bond. These include interventions that improve parenting skills, maternal sensitivity and home visiting by workers and nurses.

More steps that can be taken to help mother’s with maternal depression include:

  • Identify mothers and caregivers who may be suffering from depression.
  • Talk to them about those symptoms.
  •  Prioritise screenings and care because they are time sensitive for both mother and child.
  • Ask mothers to share their understanding of how their mental health is related to the development of their child.
  • Ask mothers if they are willing to access treatment.
  • Ask mothers what barriers may stand in the way of their self-care, including mental health access.
  • Empower them to seek help from their care providers or their child’s paediatric provider.
  • Ask mothers how you can help them get the care they need and their child needs.

Finally, it can be stated that maternal depression leaves its mark on the infant. Babies are born with impressive social capacities and they are highly attuned to the moods of their mothers. When depressed mothers interact with their infants, they are likely to display very little emotion and to act detached and withdrawn. This lack of responsiveness leads infants to display fewer positive emotions and to withdraw from contact not only with their mothers but with other adults as well. It is thus important identify mothers with maternal depression and give them all the possible treatment and help that they need for themselves and their infant.