Maternal stress and ill health

Maternal stress and prenatal depression can have an adverse effect on the physical and neurological development of the foetus, including low birth weight and preterm labour. This can be compounded by poor bonding and attachment at birth. Maternal mental ill health is a serious risk in pregnancy, and suicide is one of the most common causes of maternal death.

Women who have experienced mental stress or ill health prior to pregnancy, or who show signs of mental ill health at the onset or over the course of pregnancy, should be offered consistent and robust support from both health practitioners and early years practitioners. This support is important to encourage positive wellbeing and prevent the issues from escalating. It is important for practitioners to recognise the risk of mental ill health and stress in pregnancy.

Risks of prenatal depression and maternal stress can include:

  • prior history of depression
  • physical or chemical changes (such as having low levels of serotonin, the brain chemical that controls mood)
  • a history of abuse
  • complicated pregnancies or miscarriages
  • poor partner support
  • difficulty handling stress, either personal or professional
  • low income.

Signs of depression and stress can include, but are not limited to:

  • an inability to enjoy life
  • crying spells or tearfulness
  • disrupted sleep (or sleeping too much)
  • increased or decreased appetite
  • decreased energy
  • impaired concentration
  • thoughts of suicide or not wanting to live
  • low self-esteem
  • loss of interest in things once enjoyed
  • anxiety
  • feelings of guilt or worthlessness.

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