Pregnant women who experience anxiety or depression are reporting their children are three times more likely to have respiratory infections, colds, fevers and ear infections in the first few years of life, research shows.
While the research is not intended to strike fear, it does highlight the importance of not dismissing the signs of anxiety and depression, but to seeking help early.
Dr Nicole Highet, Founder and Executive Director of Centre for Perinatal Excellence (COPE) says, “pregnancy and the first year following the birth of a baby is the time in a woman’s life when she is most likely to develop a mental health problem and unfortunately the early signs of these conditions are just put down to the pressures of having a baby”.
“People often hold high expectations about having a baby, so they often don’t get help as they feel they should be able to cope.”
Research from the Australian National University (ANU) and Pennsylvania State University studied the cortisol, or stress hormone, levels in pregnant women and its impact on the child’s health.
“We found that mothers with higher depressive symptoms reported poorer child health,” says research author Dr Michael Roettger, Lecturer in Demography at ANU.
“In addition to our published findings for depressive symptoms, we also found a similar relationship between anxiety symptoms and poorer child health.”
“That is fairly consistent with the broader research in the field, that prenatal stress and depression can impact the development of the foetus and a range of outcomes later in childhood and adulthood.”
What is antenatal anxiety and depression?
Dr Highet explains that it is natural for pregnancy to be a time of increased stress, as many changes occur.
However, the difference between stress and conditions like anxiety and depression is that stress is a response to a particular event or stressor (like an exam, public speaking), when the stressful event has passed (in other words the adverse stimulus is removed) the stress subsides.
“Anxiety and depression are conditions, which regardless of what is going on around you, continue and are ongoing,” she says.
“Anxiety is very common in pregnancy, one in five pregnant women will experience anxiety and one in five will experience a post-natal anxiety condition.”
“The main factor that places someone at greater risk of antenatal anxiety or depression is if they have experienced them in the past or have a family history,” says Dr Highet.
“Other factors include having a perfectionist personality, levels of available social support, major life stressors or losses, a history of physical, emotional or sexual abuse, having an emotionally unsupportive mother during your upbringing, experiencing a traumatic birth and the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder from that, and having a baby who is unsettled, whether that is colic or reflux, or not feeding or sleeping.”
Dr Highet highlights that antenatal anxiety and depression are treatable or manageable conditions.
“The earlier we recognise and treat these conditions, the faster the person can recover,” she says.