How Depression Can Affect Babies In The Womb

A new study from researchers in Sweden reveals a connection between depression in expectant parents and premature birth. Although previous research has shown that depression in pregnant women increases the risk of preterm birth and is linked to low birth weight in babies, this study shows that depression in expectant fathers also has a significant affect on pregnancy and infants' health. These results highlight the importance of mental health and mental health care for both new mothers and new fathers.

The researchers analyzed more than 350 thousand births that took place in Sweden between 2007 and 2012, paying particular attention to cases involving depression in parents and premature birth. The researchers classified premature births as being either “very preterm” (taking place between 22 and 31 weeks) or “moderately preterm” (taking place between 32 and 36 weeks).

The study found that, although depression in both mothers and fathers was associated with premature birth, not all types of depression had the same effect. The researchers classified parents who had received prescription anti-depressants or been subject to hospital care in the year prior to conception or within the first two trimesters of pregnancy as “depressed.” Parents who had not experienced depression within year preceding their diagnosis with depression were considered “new” diagnoses, while those who had experienced depression in the year prior were classed as having “recurrent” depression.

The “new” vs. “recurrent” classification didn’t seem to have much impact on how women’s depression affected their pregnancies: Both types of depression were “associated with an increased risk of moderately preterm birth of around 30 percent to 40 percent,” according to Science Daily. However, the effects of paternal depression were different: New depression in expectant dads was linked to a 38 percent heightened risk of very preterm birth (that is, births occurring between 22 and 31 weeks). Fathers dealing with recurrent depression, in contrast, didn’t appear to increase the baby’s risk for preterm birth.

Although the researchers do not yet know exactly why depression in expectant fathers has this effect, Professor Anders Hjern, co-author of the study, published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, suggested that it may have to do with the way that a father’s mental health can affect his partner. He said,

Depression of a partner can be considered to be a substantial source of stress for an expectant mother, and this may result in the increased risk of very preterm birth seen in our study. … However, this risk seems to be reduced for recurrent paternal depression, indicating that perhaps treatment for the depression reduces the risk of preterm birth.

The results of this research demonstrate the importance of mental health care for expectant parents. Hjern explained,

Our results suggest that both maternal and paternal depression should be considered in preterm birth prevention strategies and both parents should be screened for mental health problems. Since men are less likely to seek professional help for any mental health problems, a proactive approach towards targeting the wellbeing of expectant fathers may be beneficial.

Dr. Patrick O’Brien, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), said in a press release, “We encourage anyone, and particularly those planning a family or who are pregnant, and are experiencing a change in mood, irritability or anxiety to seek advice. No one should suffer in silence — there is help and support available.”

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