After Maria Ayers gave birth to twins, she struggled with postpartum depression and anxiety. Perpetually exhausted and overwhelmed, Ayers didn’t have the energy to give as much attention to her first child, who was just shy of 3 years old at the time.
“I wasn’t able to take care of my eldest,” said Ayers, 39, a Roxborough resident.
She ended up receiving treatment in the form of medication, which stabilized her emotions and allowed her to be present with her three children and husband.
But that isn’t the case for all mothers — and even fathers — experiencing pregnancy-related mood disorders. Barriers to seeking help include stigma, fear of having a child removed from the home, limited insurance coverage and a limited number of healthcare providers.
Public health officials from Douglas County and healthcare providers in the perinatal field stress the importance of addressing and treating mental health problems when symptoms are present to prevent adverse effects on the family.
“Thinking of mothers as the hub of families, what goes on with mom impacts the rest of the family,” said Vicki Swarr, perinatal services nurse manager at Tri-County Health Department, which serves Douglas, Adams and Arapahoe counties. “Babies are not born in silos — there is baby, mom, family.”
Untreated pregnancy-related mood disorders — depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder are the most common — can result in preterm labor and delivery, low birth weight or difficulty breastfeeding, due to the stress the mother is experiencing, according to medical professionals in the field. This may also compromise a baby’s immune system.
Following pregnancy, a mother experiencing a mood disorder may have difficulty bonding or showing affection in the form of cooing, holding and making eye contact with her baby, which can lead to behavioral or learning problems in the child’s later years of life, medical professionals say.
“Every mother wants to be the best mother she can be, but when you are experiencing a mood disorder, it can really get in the way of interacting with your baby,” Swarr said. “Those are the moments that the baby is learning how to interact with the outside world.”
About 10 percent of fathers are at risk of experiencing a depressive episode related to pregnancy, according to Jenny Paul, licensed clinical psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Causes include psychosocial factors such as increased financial stress, sleep deprivation or a shift in intimacy with a partner. Symptoms typically show between three and six months post-pregnancy, Paul said.
“With women we think about fearfulness and sadness,” Paul said of pregnancy-related mood disorders. “With men it looks like irritability and distancing behavior, staying at work longer, going on a bike ride for longer.”
Health professionals stress that mothers and fathers can get better with treatment, which could be therapy, medication or simply talking to a close friend.
“We see a lot of associations between early perinatal mental health and how that impacts trajectory for the family system and child development,” Paul said. “What’s great is we have an opportunity to intervene.”