Does a Mother's Mental Health Affect Pregnancy?

Medically Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on April 19, 2023
3 min read

Pregnancy is usually thought of as a time of positive feelings for expectant parents. However, some people may experience mental illness during this time, whether or not they have before. Around 20% of pregnant people experience anxiety or depression during their pregnancy.

People who stop taking psychiatric medications for depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health conditions during pregnancy may also experience increased or additional symptoms of their mental illness.

During pregnancy. Until recently, the primary focus on a mother's mental health and her baby's was on the time after pregnancy. Parental depression or anxiety could lead to neglectful behaviors, causing future mental health issues in a child. However, more recent research shows that a mother's mental health can affect her baby while she is pregnant.

Stress. Animal studies show that babies exposed to more stress hormones while they are in the womb are more likely to have a very active amygdala in the brain. This means that they have higher anxiety levels. 

Anxiety and depression. Another study in humans showed that babies of anxious moms reacted with an increased heart rate when their mothers were given a stressful task. Another early study showed less activity between the regions of the brain that control emotions in babies of expectant mothers with depression. 

Other research shows that babies born to parents who were depressed while pregnant have lower birth weights. Additionally, pregnant people with anxiety and depression are more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, or use other substances during pregnancy.

Society. However, parents are not necessarily the cause of their children's mental health struggles. Some mental health professionals believe that these are societal issues. If factors that contribute to stress and mental illness during pregnancy are dealt with on a societal level, then the outcomes for children will likely improve as well. 

Maybe. The FDA has not approved any psychiatric medications to be taken during pregnancy. That doesn't necessarily mean that they are unsafe. They simply have not been studied in pregnant women to the degree needed for FDA approval.

Under the care of a doctor with experience in reproductive psychiatry, some medications may be safe to take.

Antidepressants. Several studies suggest certain antidepressants may be safe during pregnancy. One study showed that there was no increased risk of birth defects in babies that were exposed to the popular antidepressant Prozac in the womb.

Other similar studies suggest other SSRI medications may be safe to take during pregnancy. One antidepressant that is generally discouraged for expectant mothers is Paxil. Studies show that babies exposed to it in the womb may have an increased risk of congenital heart defects.

Once born, some babies have symptoms of withdrawal from antidepressants for the first 2 weeks of life including:

  • Tremors
  • Poor feeding
  • Excess irritability
  • Breathing fast

However, these symptoms usually do not require any medical care. They should go away on their own.

Some expectant mothers gradually reduce their dosage as delivery nears to prevent withdrawal symptoms.

Other psychiatric medications. Mood stabilizers and some antipsychotic medications may be safe to take during pregnancy under the care of a doctor. However, one mood stabilizer pregnant people should avoid is valproic acid (Depakene). It is associated with a much higher risk for birth defects. 

Doctors often prescribe alternatives to this medication to women during their fertile years, just in case of a surprise pregnancy. 

Whether you had a mental illness before pregnancy or are now pregnant and not feeling how you used to, there are ways you can cope, such as:

  • Speak to a counselor or therapist
  • Talk to family, friends, or religious and community leaders
  • Try yoga, meditation, or exercise

You are not alone. Always remember, it's perfectly normal to feel worried, down, or anxious during pregnancy. If you're feeling that way all the time, you don't have to handle it alone. Reach out to those around you, and contact your doctor for additional support and advice.