Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder affecting literally millions of Americans. Some of those struggling to overcome intense mood swings are brand new mothers. A study of women with various kinds of mental health disorders found that pregnant and post-partum moms with bipolar may have the toughest time of all. Researchers from Brown University conducted a study to see how the stresses of pregnancy and perinatal period affected moms with bipolar disorder. To find out they examined the medical records of 334 females with a diagnosed psychiatric condition who sought out treatment at the Brown-affiliated Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island Women Day Hospital Program, which focuses exclusively on the needs of perinatal women through partial hospitalization. Out of the 334 studied, 32 women had a diagnosis of bipolar I, bipolar II or an unspecified form of the disorder. The remainder of patients studied were living with other psychiatric conditions, such as obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder or clinical depression.
Bipolar Moms at Greater Risk for Self-Harm
Investigators used statistical analysis to compare and contrast the number of significant maternal and psychiatric problems experienced by the women with bipolar against those with another disorder. Women with bipolar were found to be at considerably higher risk for both impairment and self-harm. More than 50 percent of the bipolar women had a background including substance abuse, while just 26 percent of the other women had had substance use problems. In addition, 59 percent of the bipolar women had tried to commit suicide at some point in their past, versus 27 percent of the others.
Bipolar Moms Face Mothering Impairment
The review showed that better than 50 percent of the patients with bipolar experienced complications during the delivery of their babies, compared to 27 percent of women with another disorder. The number of women who decided to breastfeed their newborn was similar across all diagnoses. However, 78 percent of the mothers with bipolar said they had difficulty with breastfeeding, versus 42.3 percent of the non-bipolar women. Of course, the hormonal and physical changes which occur during pregnancy tend to bother most women, whether or not they have a psychiatric condition. But for women with bipolar disorder these changes along with the demands of early motherhood can prove functionally impairing. One of the key problems for pregnant moms with bipolar is whether or not to continue taking their medication. Regular medication is often pivotal in controlling the symptoms of bipolar, but pregnant women sometimes worry that the drugs may negatively impact their unborn child, and some decide to go off their meds during this time, creating a substantial hurdle. Another hurdle comes in the form of interrupted sleep. Patients with bipolar can manage some of their episode frequency and intensity by maintaining regular sleep-wake habits. Of course, pregnancy and infancy can wreak havoc with a mother’s ability to get a solid night’s rest. Whether from the discomfort of pregnancy or a young baby’s nighttime crying, going to bed on time and sleeping through the night is a rarity for parents of newborns.
What Can be Done to Help
Pregnancy and early motherhood is a fragile time for any woman, and it’s a particularly vulnerable time for women with bipolar. So what can be done to help them through this delicate period? One possibility would be for these women to try a different and safer bipolar medication while they’re pregnant and nursing, rather than going off their medication completely. Untreated bipolar is an unnecessary complication, according to the researchers. Getting enough sleep, as well as therapy, would also be beneficial. In fact, the Brown team is already working to create psychosocial interventions aimed specifically at helping perinatal bipolar women.