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Emotional Health Problems in Pregnancy: A Taboo Topic

Prenatal emotional health problems are a taboo topic in our society. Pregnancy expectations are high. Women are meant to be glowing, healthy, happy, excited, and beautiful. Pregnancy is supposed to be a time of growth, moving forward, rekindling of relationships with partners, and of making bright future plans.

For every four pregnant women you meet, chances are this is not what life is like for one of them.

They suffer under the crushing blows of their own experience….and expectations imposed upon them by friends, family, healthcare providers, and media. Instead of happiness, they are angry, sad and irritable. The once fun, loving relationship with their partner has turned to confusion, distress and helplessness. The excited moments of announcing a new pregnancy to friends and family have turned to doubt and self-loathing, resentment about the pregnancy and feeling pathetic. They desperately want to be happy – to be like others – but they keep their shameful emotions to themselves because the inadequacy is so deep and painful.

Prenatal Emotional Health Problems: The Untold Story

I call prenatal emotional health problems the untold story. We hear about postpartum depression all the time – in books on pregnancy, on television, in the news, in prenatal classes, and from our doctors and nurses. We rarely hear about prenatal depression. Or prenatal anxiety. Yet, with 1 in 4 women experiencing depression, anxiety or stress in pregnancy, emotional health problems are among the most common complications of pregnancy.

  • Compare this to the 1 in 10 women who develop diabetes in pregnancy.
  • Or to the 3 in 100 women who experience high blood pressure.

These are conditions that are checked for at every prenatal visit. Why? Because they represent harm to the mother and to the baby. Women who have high blood pressure when they are pregnant may give birth to an infant who is too small. Those with gestational diabetes may give birth to an infant who is too large.

But our research and other’s show that 20 to 30% of children born to a mother suffering with prenatal anxiety or depression develop some form of developmental challenge or emotional health problem that affects their school performance and their ability to build relationships. This is not an easy message to hear. But we can’t ignore the fact that prenatal emotional problems have consequences – for mother and baby.

But – They’re Just Mood Swings…..Right?

Think back again to the examples of diabetes and high blood pressure that we’ve been working through.

  • Gestational diabetes goes away once the baby is born.
  • Hypertension lowers once the baby is born.

But for 40% of women, prenatal depression and anxiety carry on through postpartum and well into the early childhood period. Without help, studies from Australia, France and our own work from Canada show that women who had depression and/or anxiety in pregnancy still had symptoms when their child was 3, 4 and 5 years old.

True anxiety and depression are not just “mood swings.” They can persist if no action is taken.

What You Can Do

  1. Know that you are not alone! Many women experience emotional health problems in pregnancy, ranging from high stress to anxiety to depression. They are the MOST common complications of pregnancy.
  2. Don’t suffer in silence. Because most pregnant women don’t know there is such a thing as prenatal anxiety, stress or depression, they suffer in silence. They don’t share their concerns with their doctor for many reasons, including wanting to be a “good patient,” not wanting to “waste” their doctor’s time, not being sure whether their symptoms are “bad enough” to talk to their doctor about them, and believing that they’ll just go away on their own.
  3. Take the first step! In Canada, the U.S. and most other countries (excluding the UK and AUS), checking for prenatal emotional health problems is not part of a regular prenatal visit. If you are concerned (or concerned for someone), please bring it up with your doctor or nurse. She may not raise the issue – but you can.

I’d love to hear your comments and your experiences. Please feel free to share!

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Emotional Health Problems in Pregnancy: A Taboo Topic

Dawn Kingston

Dr. Dawn Kingston is an associate professor at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, and holder of the Lois Hole Hospital for Women Cross-Provincial Chair in Perinatal Mental Health. Her work centers on helping pregnant women take care of their mental and emotional well-being. Dr. Kingston has been doing research on prenatal mental health for the past 10 years. She became interested in women’s mental health during pregnancy as a nurse caring for sick infants in a neonatal intensive care unit. At the time, the medical field was focused on physical pregnancy problems, but new research was linking prenatal stress, anxiety and depression to preterm birth and other health problems in children whose mothers suffered with prenatal anxiety or depression. Since then, studies have shown that mental health problems are among the most common health problems in pregnancy. Her goal is to set up systems to provide support for emotional and mental health during pregnancy, especially in areas where it is unavailable, to improve pregnancy outcomes and prevent postnatal depression.

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APA Reference
Kingston, D. (2017). Emotional Health Problems in Pregnancy: A Taboo Topic. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 19, 2019, from


Last updated: 16 Feb 2017
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