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Postpartum Depression Affects Babies, too

  • Joe DeCapua

 A woman receives information on postpartum depression at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi, Ghana. (Credit: K. Gold, University of Michigan medical School)

A woman receives information on postpartum depression at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi, Ghana. (Credit: K. Gold, University of Michigan medical School)

In Ghana, mothers who have sick babies are much more likely to suffer from postpartum depression. A new study says that could put their children at risk. Researchers say while the study of postpartum depression was done in Ghana, the findings could apply to many low-income countries.


Lead author Dr. Katherine Gold said while it’s a condition well understood in the developed world, that’s not the case in Ghana or most of Africa.

“Postpartum depression would be a clinical depression in the first year after giving birth. This is not the baby blues where people might feel a little down or have some hormonal changes. These are people who are having significant difficulty functioning; taking care of themselves; taking care of their babies,” she said.

It can have numerous causes.

“You can have a genetic predisposition. If your mother had it or your sister had it, you might be at risk. If you’ve been depressed before or have other mental health problems – if you don’t have a lot of social support – that could be a risk factor. And one of the surprising things was that the risk factors in high-income countries seemed to be pretty similar to the risk factors in low-income countries,” she said.

Gold is assistant professor of family medicine, obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan Medical School. She said postpartum depression in a low-income country can have many symptoms.

“Typically, it would be someone who appears sad or tearful, who’s withdrawn from social or family activities, who may not be taking proper care of themselves – proper hygiene, may not be taking care of the baby – maybe feeling or talking about feeling worthless or hopeless about the future. And in the very severe cases maybe having suicidal thoughts,” she said.

Dr. Gold said that because there is so little known about postpartum depression, many women face a great deal of stigma. While doctors may view it as a medical condition, women may view it as some kind of punishment or curse placed upon them.

When a mother suffers from postpartum depression it can negatively affect her child, especially if that child is already ill. There’s much evidence of that in high-income countries.

“We know that depression in pregnancy and postpartum can affect the pregnancy outcome. It can affect how the baby attaches with mom. It can affect things like the baby’s well-being. But in low-income countries, if mom is depressed it also affects the infant’s health. And it appears to affect diarrheal diseases, respiratory illnesses, their growth. It has significant health effects. So it really can be a life and death situation for babies in these low-income countries,” she said.

Adding to the problem is the lack of psychiatrists in Ghana. Gold says there are fewer than 10 in a country of 25 million people.

She said there are medications that can help and they’re available in Africa. The problem is they’re expensive. Gold added that counseling and community peer groups could help by informing women about the condition – its causes, symptoms and treatments. For a start, it would let them know that the situation is not hopeless.
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