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Mental health in pregnancy: Here’s what you should know


Whether you’ve struggled with mental health conditions pre-pregnancy, you’re scared sh*tless about having a baby, or you’ve had a traumatic pregnancy experience in the past, you may be wondering how to look after your mental health in pregnancy. 

Well GO YOU! As much as doctors love to harp on about nourishing your body and looking after your physical health during pregnancy, caring for your mental health is essential too.

So how does pregnancy affect mental health? And vice versa? That’s what we’ll explore in this article.

The importance of mental health during pregnancy

Awareness around postnatal depression and anxiety is increasing, which is awesome. The postpartum period (especially for first time parents) is fraught with triggers – lack of sleep, high stress situations, lots of noise, scary new things (ahem… breastfeeding), relationship tensions, and an overabundance of horrendous poop. 

We love that more and more support services are cropping up for new, wildly unqualified parents in full freak-out mode.

But mental health support for pregnant mothers – ya know, during the period when you’re actually growing this baby inside you – is arguably just as crucial. And it’s less often talked about.

Looking after your mental health in pregnancy is important because:

  • Emotional wellness leads you to make better health decisions – i.e stress can cause low appetite in some people, leading you to skip meals and miss out on essential baby-growing nutrients. 

  • Implementing helpful strategies now can help you avoid serious mental health issues in your postpartum.

Does mental health affect pregnancy outcomes directly?

Sort of. There is some evidence that prolonged periods of stress during pregnancy can lead to premature birth and low birthweight. It may also contribute to babies developing asthma, allergies, and behavioural conditions like ADHD.

It’s important to manage your stress levels during pregnancy (consider this permission to book a relaxing babymoon!), but the biggest concern when it comes to pregnancy mental health is how it might affect your behaviours. Because if you can’t take care of yourself well while you’re pregnant, your baby may not receive all the nourishing goodness that self-care brings.

So what specifically should you be on the lookout for when it comes to mental health in pregnancy?

Common pregnancy mental health problems

 Obviously, there are the more common mental health conditions:

  • Anxiety – The Royal Women’s Hospital Melbourne states that as many as 30 per cent of pregnant women experience anxiety at some point. Worry is SUPER common in pregnancy, but it can become a problem when anxious thoughts overwhelm you and impact your ability to cope.

  • Depression – This may be trickier to diagnose because pregnancy hormones can cause similar symptoms to depression, like interrupted sleep, appetite changes, unexplained crying, etc. But if you’re feeling ‘off’ for more than a couple of weeks, you should chat to your doctor about it.


During pregnancy, severe mental health conditions are less common, but can really hit hard (especially if you need to stop taking medications to fall pregnant*). The following also carry an increased risk of pregnancy complications like gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, or preterm birth.

  • Bipolar disorder – With bipolar disorder, you have wild mood shifts between extreme highs (mania) and extreme lows (depression). There’s often a family history of it, but The Royal Women’s Hospital Melbourne notes that it surfaces for some women for the first time when having a baby.

  • Schizophrenia – The experience of schizophrenia has been described as “a disturbance involving the most basic functions that give the person a feeling of individuality, uniqueness and self-direction”. You may experience delusions, hallucinations, and a shift to a nocturnal body clock.


Here are some other conditions that can impact mental health for mothers during pregnancy, too:

  • PTSD – Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) could be caused by a stressful event in your past, including a traumatic birth experience.

  • Panic attacks – Often a symptom of severe anxiety, panic attacks are sudden and intense periods of unexplainable fear, often accompanied by physical symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath.

  • Eating disorders – Given how much your body changes (read: expands) during pregnancy, it’s not surprising that women who’ve experienced eating disorders find it a really challenging time. They’re also more likely to experience a relapse after birth. (Thanks, in part, to the whole “bounce back” concept, ick.)



*A little note about medications for mental health, and pregnancy

Of course you should always seek your doctor’s advice about medication and pregnancy care, but it’s interesting to note that research into what’s safe and not safe to take in pregnancy is still incomplete. There’s some evidence to suggest that taking certain antidepressants, mood stabilisers, and antipsychotic medications during pregnancy can cause birth defects, or even your baby having ‘withdrawal symptoms’ post-birth.

That said, women who stop taking medications to treat mental health conditions in pregnancy are at significantly higher risk of relapsing. Er… so that’s kinda lose-lose.

You might be advised to hold off on taking medication just during your first trimester of pregnancy, when your baby’s major organs are being developed. Or you could be advised to switch medications for the duration of your pregnancy.

Talk to your doctor for advice on what YOU should do, if you’re taking medication for mental health.

Who needs support with mental health in pregnancy?

Pretty much everyone.

  • First time mums – Mental health for new mothers can be a wild ride. You may need help navigating the twists and turns of pregnancy, including yucky symptoms, and anxiety about the unknown (which we all get).

  • Mums with a history of mental health conditions – Even if you’re feeling under control, you’re at higher risk of developing problems after you give birth. Consider mental health support for mothers a preventative measure!

  • Mums that don’t want to be pregnant RN – If you’re not actually happy to be pregnant, of course you’re going to need mental health support! You might be feeling shocked, disappointed, and like your life has been derailed by this pregnancy. Don’t deal with those feels all by yourself.

  • Dads/non-birthing partners – They need mental health support too! Pregnancy can be stressful for partners, who often feel useless and like they can’t do much to help. Remember: Men (generally) aren’t great at getting help. You might need to give your partner a nudge.

Where to get support

Counselling

Making a pregnancy counselling appointment is a great place to begin. Whether you’re feeling a bit rocky, or you’re totally fine, there are lots of benefits to talking things through with a therapist during your pregnancy.

Your doctor

If you’re worried about your mental health in pregnancy, talk to your GP. They can outline treatment options and put you in touch with helpful services.

Online support services

There are also some excellent organisations you can reach out to if you or your partner are struggling with mental health during your pregnancy.

PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia) – Check it out to access heaps of free resources, including a national helpline available Monday–Friday 9.00am–7.30pm.

ForWhen – They offer mental health support for new and expecting parents, and a free support hotline is available Monday–Friday 9.00am–4.00pm to put you in touch with local services.

Gidget Foundation – Take a look at their great resources, support services, relatable real-life stories, and phone or email mental health support for mothers and fathers.

Call 000 in an emergency

If you are ever feeling suicidal or experiencing thoughts of self-harm, don’t mess around mama – call 000 straight away for emergency mental health support. You don’t have to go through this alone.



Read next: Strategies for anxiety during pregnancy and the prenatal period



The Royal Women’s Hospital, Mental health & pregnancy

BetterHealth Channel, Pregnancy and your mental health

KidsHealth, Taking Care of Your Mental Health During Pregnancy

The MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health, Psychiatric Disorders During Pregnancy

Centre of Perinatal Excellence, Antenatal mental health conditions

Australian Government Department of Health, Pregnancy care for women with severe mental illness

Royal College of Psychiatrists (England and Wales), Mental health in pregnancy

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