Depression in Pregnancy

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

See also: Postnatal Depression - A Self Help Guide written for patients

Women have a lifetime risk of depression of about 1 in 4 and it is most prevalent during their reproductive years. Much emphasis has been placed on the detection and treatment of postnatal depression because of the morbidity in mother and child. However antenatal depression is actually more frequent and about half of postnatal depression appears to start antenatally.

Pregnancy and depression affect each other:[1]

  • Pregnancy is a major psychological, as well as physiological, event:
    • With an excess of chronic life stressors, women may find themselves unable to cope with the additional demands of pregnancy.
    • Many women, particularly those living in poverty or already with many dependent children, may view pregnancy with ambivalence or negative feelings.
    • Issues or memories surrounding poor parenting or abuse women have suffered may reassert themselves and cause distress.
    • Relationships are often under pressure - domestic violence increases during pregnancy.
  • Pregnancy-related sex steroids increase activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (the cortisol stress system) which is associated with depression. Some investigators have suggested that high levels of cortisol may effect fetal growth and development and be associated with altered temperament and behaviour.[2]
  • Many women stop antidepressant medication due to concerns about potential harm to their developing fetus - this underlies high rates of relapse in pregnancy.[3]
  • Depressed women are more likely to smoke and drink alcohol and less likely to attend for antenatal care - one behavioural pathway mediating poorer obstetric and neonatal outcomes.

Estimates suggest:[1]

  • 7% of women are depressed outside the perinatal period.
  • 10-15% of women in developed countries are depressed in pregnancy.[4]
  • 19-25% of women are depressed in economically poorer countries.
  • 10% of women are depressed postnatally.
  • Rates of relapse in pregnant women with a history of recurrent mood disorder may be up to 50%.

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Risk factors

Women experiencing social or economic adversity are most likely to experience antenatal depression. Risk factors include:[4][5]

  • History of mood and anxiety disorders.
  • History of postnatal depression.
  • History of premenstrual dysphoric disorder.
  • Family history of perinatal psychiatric illness.
  • History of childhood abuse.
  • Low income.
  • Poor social support.
  • Unplanned pregnancy.
  • Single motherhood.
  • Large number of existing children.
  • Domestic violence or relationship conflict.
  • Young age.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) advises against using single risk factors to predict individuals at risk of antenatal mental illness.[6] A Cochrane review concluded that there was insufficient evidence to suggest that the use of psychosocial risk assessments improves perinatal mental health outcomes.[7]

Vigorous exercise (3-5 times a week, raising the heart rate to 70-80% of maximum) may have a protective effect.[8]

The signs and symptoms of antenatal depression are as for depression in general. See separate article on Depression. However, if one focuses on somatic symptoms (eg fatigue, insomnia, appetite changes), pregnancy symptoms may mask those of depression, particularly in the first trimester. Thus, the psychological symptoms (eg anhedonia, hopelessness, guilt) may be more reliable during pregnancy.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - fourth edition (DSM-IV) recognises postpartum-onset mood disorders but does not refer specifically to depression during pregnancy.

Identifying antenatal depression is potentially difficult - women are reluctant to acknowledge 'difficult' emotions rather than the 'bloom' expected in pregnancy and many of the biological symptoms of depression can also be attributed to the pregnancy itself. NICE guidelines[6] suggest that health professionals (whether midwives, GPs, health visitors or obstetricians) should screen pregnant women at first contact and at booking with 2 questions:

  • During the past month, have you often felt bothered by feeling low, depressed or hopeless?
  • During the past month, have you often been bothered by having little interest or pleasure in doing things?

If the woman answers 'yes' to either of the above, then a third question should be asked:

  • Is this something you need or want help with?

Use of self-report measurement tools may be helpful in further assessment or for monitoring of response to treatment, but should not be used for diagnosis.

Women with depression and those caring for them need to balance risks to the woman's health and the potential fetus' development:

  • The risk to fetus and neonate posed by medication. There is conflicting evidence regarding the risk of congenital malformations associated with some psychotropic medications. Since these are such rare events, it is often difficult confidently to quantify the risk or establish causation.
  • The risk of untreated mental illness.
  • The risk of abrupt cessation of current medication.

Guidelines recommend treatment options dependent on severity of depression, past history of affective disorder and maternal preference.[6] As there has been concern about the risk associated with antidepressant use during pregnancy, the threshold for use of psychological treatments is much lower at this time but the availability of psychological treatments has obvious implications.

Watchful waiting

Where an individual has had mild depression treated with antidepressants and is pregnant/intends to become pregnant, withdraw the drugs gradually and monitor regularly.


This is suggested where intervention is required for mild-to-moderate depression without a previous history of depression. Possibilities include:

  • Guided self-help.
  • Computerised cognitive behavioural therapy (C-CBT).

Alternatives, where available, would be nondirective counselling ('listening visits') or brief psychological treatment (usually 4-6 sessions of CBT or interpersonal psychotherapy).[4] Other approaches such as massage and acupuncture have not been shown to be beneficial.[10]


These therapies have been shown to be effective for milder cases in one small trial, but evidence is extremely limited.[11] Also, the time to response is longer than with medication. Psychological treatments may be considered for moderate or severe depression where a woman opts for this in preference to drug treatment or in combination with antidepressant medication. They should also be considered with mild depression with episodes of more severe depression in the past.


Discussion of the potential risks of antidepressants in pregnancy should occur prior to prescribing them to women of child-bearing age. Two thirds of women with a history of recurrent depression will relapse during pregnancy if they discontinue their medications after conception.[1]

When prescribing antidepressants to pregnant women or women who intend or may become pregnant, consider:

  • Tricyclics are considered lower risk than newer antidepressants during pregnancy but have a higher fatal toxicity index than selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
  • SSRIs:
    • It is estimated that about 2-3% of current pregnancies are exposed to SSRIs.[12]
    • The UK Teratology Information Service notes that the available data on first trimester paroxetine exposure and SSRIs as a class are conflicting and that if there is an association between paroxetine exposure and cardiovascular malformations, the absolute increase in risk appears to be small.[13] However SIGN advises against initiating paroxetine as first line treatment in pregnancy.
    • An increased risk of omphalocele with the use of sertraline has been suggested.[14]
    • Exposure to SSRIs during the third trimester may be associated with persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn.
    • MHRA advice is to consider potential risks in the context of the benefits of treatment when making prescribing decisions concerning SSRIs in pregnant women or women who may become pregnant.
  • Imipramine, nortriptyline and sertraline are present in breast milk at relatively low levels whilst citalopram and fluoxetine are present at much higher levels.
  • Venlafaxine increases blood pressure during pregnancy and has a higher toxicity in overdose compared with SSRIs and some tricyclics. In general, the advice is to avoid mirtazapine, reboxetine, moclobemide or venlafaxine.
  • Avoid St John's wort in pregnancy.
  • All antidepressants carry the risk of withdrawal or toxicity in the neonate. Normally this is mild and self-limiting. Serotonin withdrawal syndrome is a self-limiting condition with usual neonatal symptoms including hypotonia, irritability, excessive crying, sleeping difficulties and mild respiratory distress. It is more likely to occur with paroxetine. Some centres try to prevent it by gradually discontinuing medication in the third trimester but this carries a high risk of relapse. NB: serotonin toxicity may give very similar symptoms to its withdrawal syndrome.[15]

Antidepressant use is an option in:[6]

  • Moderate or severe depression dependent on patient preference.
  • Mild depression that has failed to respond to other measures or when associated with a past history of severe depression.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)[6]

Where depression is severe and treatment resistant, strategies include a trial of a different single drug or ECT. There is limited available evidence but it appears effective for severe mental depression in pregnancy and that the risks to fetus and mother are low.[16] Lithium augmentation should be avoided.


Any woman taking lithium in pregnancy needs an individualised psychiatric care plan, involving maternity services and the woman herself, for lithium management throughout pregnancy and the peripartum. This needs to include:[4]

  • Frequency of monitoring and dose adjustment.
  • Potential for interaction with other medications used in pregnancy.
  • Preparation for and mode of delivery.
  • Risks to the neonate.

There are potential risks to the infant when a breast-feeding mother takes lithium, so mothers should be discouraged from breast-feeding. If they decide to breast-feed, the infant needs close monitoring including serum lithium levels, thyroid and renal monitoring.


Refer to perinatal psychiatric services (or general psychiatric services where not available):[9]

  • Women with recurring depression or bipolar disorder at the outset of their pregnancy.
  • Women with new onset depression in pregnancy when:
    • The woman is severely depressed and at risk of self-harm or suicide.
    • There is evidence of severe self-neglect.
    • There are psychotic or manic features.
    • The woman may have undiagnosed bipolar disorder or has a history of other severe mental illness.
    • There is a family history of severe depression, puerperal psychosis, suicide, or bipolar illness.
  • Consider referral or seek advice when:
    • Antidepressant treatment is under consideration.
    • There is uncertainty regarding diagnosis.
    • The woman has recurrent depression.
    • The depression is poorly responsive to treatment.
  • Other factors, including level of functional impairment and comorbidities, should also be considered.

Antenatal stress or depression is associated with increased risk of:

  • Miscarriage - this may be mediated by antenatal exposure to antidepressants.
  • Preterm delivery.
  • Increased pregnancy symptoms, pain relief in labour and worse obstetric outcome.[17]
  • Low birthweight - may be due to confounding variables.[18]
  • Poor infant growth.
  • Attempted/completed suicide.
  • Possible longer-term cognitive, emotional and behavioural difficulties in offspring.
  • Relationship and family break-up.

Early detection of depression during pregnancy and its adequate treatment are critical to avoid its persistence into the postpartum period and sequelae such as impaired mother-infant attachments and the consequences this has for children. Exposure to tricyclic antidepressants or fluoxetine in pregnancy does not appear to affect cognition, language development, or the temperament of preschool and early-school children adversely. However, maternal depression is associated with less cognitive and language achievement by their children.[4] This is not universal but tends to occur when the mother is unable to actively engage with the infant.

Whilst women are at generally low risk of suicide during pregnancy, it is a significant cause of maternal death in the year following birth in the UK.[19] Improving awareness of perinatal mental health problems, in all their diversity, is important.

Women with pre-existing affective disorder

  • All women with affective disorders, of reproductive age and potential, should have family planning discussed as part of their routine care. Where women with a past history of severe or resistant depression are planning to become pregnant, referral to specialist psychiatric services for preconceptual advice is appropriate.
  • The decision to stop or continue medication should be an informed decision made by the woman, with access to available evidence and risk assessment.

Women with depressive symptoms[6]

Where a woman experiences depressive symptoms that do not meet diagnostic criteria but do significantly interfere with her personal or social functioning:

  • If she has not had a previous episode of depression, consider increasing social support during pregnancy and the postnatal period with regular informal individual or group based sessions.
  • If she has had a previous episode of depression, consider offering brief psychological treatment (4-6 sessions) such as interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Further reading & references

  1. O'Keane V, Marsh MS; Depression during pregnancy. BMJ. 2007 May 12;334(7601):1003-5.
  2. Davis EP, Glynn LM, Schetter CD, et al; Prenatal exposure to maternal depression and cortisol influences infant temperament. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2007 Jun;46(6):737-46.
  3. Cohen LS, Altshuler LL, Harlow BL, et al; Relapse of major depression during pregnancy in women who maintain or discontinue antidepressant treatment. JAMA. 2006 Feb 1;295(5):499-507.
  4. Management of perinatal mood disorders; Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network - SIGN (March 2012)
  5. Lancaster CA, Gold KJ, Flynn HA, et al; Risk factors for depressive symptoms during pregnancy: a systematic review. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2010 Jan;202(1):5-14.
  6. Antenatal and postnatal mental health: clinical management and service guidance; NICE Clinical Guideline (2007)
  7. Austin MP, Priest SR, Sullivan EA; Antenatal psychosocial assessment for reducing perinatal mental health morbidity. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008 Oct 8;(4):CD005124.
  8. Strom M, Mortensen EL, Halldorson TI, et al; Leisure-time physical activity in pregnancy and risk of postpartum depression: a J Clin Psychiatry. 2009 Dec;70(12):1707-14.
  9. Depression - antenatal and postnatal, Prodigy (March 2008)
  10. Dennis CL, Allen K; Interventions (other than pharmacological, psychosocial or psychological) for Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008 Oct 8;(4):CD006795.
  11. Dennis CL, Ross L, Grigoriadis S; Psychosocial and psychological interventions for treating antenatal depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Jul 18;3:CD006309.
  12. Drug Safety Update: Volume 3, Issue 8, March 2010; Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA)
  13. Use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) in pregnancy, UK Teratology Information Service, Oct 2010
  14. Louik C, Lin AE, Werler MM, et al; First-trimester use of selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors and the risk of birth defects. N Engl J Med. 2007 Jun 28;356(26):2675-83.
  15. Haddad PM, Pal BR, Clarke P, et al; Neonatal symptoms following maternal paroxetine treatment: serotonin toxicity or paroxetine discontinuation syndrome? J Psychopharmacol. 2005 Sep;19(5):554-7.
  16. Anderson EL, Reti IM; ECT in pregnancy: a review of the literature from 1941 to 2007. Psychosom Med. 2009 Feb;71(2):235-42. Epub 2008 Dec 10.
  17. Alder J, Fink N, Bitzer J, et al; Depression and anxiety during pregnancy: a risk factor for obstetric, fetal and neonatal outcome? A critical review of the literature. J Matern Fetal Neonatal Med. 2007 Mar;20(3):189-209.
  18. Evans J, Heron J, Patel RR, et al; Depressive symptoms during pregnancy and low birth weight at term: longitudinal study. Br J Psychiatry. 2007 Jul;191:84-5.
  19. Saving Mothers' Lives. Reviewing maternal deaths to make motherhood safer: 2006-2008; Centre for Maternal and Child Enquiries (CMACE), BJOG, Mar 2011

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Chloe Borton
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Prof Cathy Jackson
Document ID:
7093 (v6)
Last Checked:
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