Drinking and Depression in Pregnant Women

While most expectant mothers in the U.S. are aware of the risks drinking and drug use pose for their unborn babies, drinking during pregnancy continues—and not always light drinking. What causes expectant mothers to consume alcohol and even binge drink during pregnancy? What motivates the behavior and what can be done to help women abstain from using and abusing alcohol during pregnancy? Unfortunately the problem goes much deeper than the simple, unthinking craving for a drink or the desire for a little chemical relaxation. The issue? Depression, anxiety and other negative emotions, also referred to as “negative affectivity.” A recent Norwegian study examined the correlation between mothers who experience negative affect or negative emotions such as depression and/or anxiety during pregnancy and their drinking habits. According to an article on the study, “The results, published in Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, a journal of the Nordic Federation of Societies of Obstetrics and Gynecology, show that many women continue to drink alcohol while pregnant—16 percent of women had light alcohol use in the first trimester and 10 percent in the second trimester. During their first trimester, 12 percent of women reported binge drinking and this fell to 0.5 percent in the second trimester.”

The Relationship Between Depression and Drinking in Pregnant Women

Using questionnaires, researchers developed a system for measuring a woman’s level of negative affectivity, or the level and intensity of her negative emotions. This correlated directly to the pregnant mother’s tendency to drink during pregnancy. Drinking ranged from light, but consistent consumption, to episodes of binge drinking. “Findings indicate that with each unit increase in the mother’s negative affectivity, the chances of her drinking alcohol increased in the first and second trimester, 27 percent and 28 percent, respectively.” Study coordinator Dr. Stene-Larsen concludes: “Our findings clearly show a link between a mother’s negative emotions, such as depression and anxiety, and light alcohol use and binge drinking during pregnancy. Further study is needed to understand why women continue to drink alcohol while pregnant despite health warnings.”

Other Dangers of Depression in Pregnant Women

In addition to the higher risk of drinking during pregnancy and the potential health problems that alcohol can cause in the unborn child, depression in pregnant women has also been linked to a higher risk that the child will later suffer from depression as well. A British study found that as rates of depression increased in pregnant women, so did the probability of their children showing symptoms of depression by the age of 18. According to the authors of the study: “The findings have important implications for the nature and timing of interventions aimed at preventing depression in the offspring of depressed mothers. In particular, the findings suggest that treating depression in pregnancy, irrespective of background, may be most effective.”

Addressing Depression During Pregnancy

While as a society we are making strides in educating women and caregivers on the dangers of postpartum depression, and depression screening is becoming the standard after the birth of a child, there is still work to do in increasing awareness of depression in expectant mothers. Better physical and mental health outcomes in children depend not only on good physical care of the expectant mother, but psychological/emotional care as well. Given the tendency of depressed pregnant women to consume alcohol and practice other risky behaviors, as well as the higher likelihood that a child of a mother who suffered depression during pregnancy will later show signs of depression, a revived focus on prenatal mental health is in order. In addition to screening for and attending to issues of postpartum depression, doctors and medical professionals must be looking for signs of depression during pregnancy. The first trimester is the best time for expectant mothers to be screened and educated about the risks of depression and drinking during pregnancy.    

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