Depression Is the Biggest Cause of Cigarette, Alcohol Use During Pregnancy

Mental health is so important.
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profile picture of Stephanie Grassullo
Associate Editor
August 9, 2019
depressed woman in bed with hands over her face
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We know substance use during pregnancy is a major no-no, yet there are still many women who drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes and weed throughout their journey. Researchers at Western University wanted to see how someone’s mental health affected their likelihood of drinking or smoking during pregnancy, and their findings once again highlight the importance of mental health for soon-to-be parents.

The study’s authors analyzed health and geographical data gathered through Lawson Health Research Institute from more than 25,000 pregnant women in southwestern Ontario. Their findings? Pregnant women who were depressed were 2.6 times more likely to use cannabis, and twice as likely to smoke cigarettes and use alcohol during pregnancy. Although the researchers were unable to determine when the substance use first began, they can confirm that it was continuing during pregnancy.

The study is the first Canadian study using a sample size with this many participants to show that depression during pregnancy is the primary risk factor—above education, income or age—for smoking pot and tobacco, as well as drinking alcohol.

Their observations are more important now than ever. A 2018 study found millennials are more likely to feel depressed during pregnancy than generations past. Specifically, the number of women experiencing symptoms of prenatal depression—guilt, anxiety and sleep problems—spiked from 17 to 51 percent in a period of 25 years.

When left untreated, stress and depression during pregnancy can impact both your and your baby’s health. Just like depression at other stages of life, prenatal depression can affect how you take care of yourself, which may impact the wellbeing of your child. For example, you might not take prenatal vitamins, exercise, eat well or get sufficient medical care. Not to mention, there are also specific health risks for women suffering from depression during pregnancy. They have a higher risk of preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and placental abnormalities, and are more likely to give birth prematurely or to a child with emotional, behavioral or developmental problems. And because prenatal depression increases the risk of postpartum depression, women who have depression during pregnancy may also have trouble bonding with their new baby after the birth.

“This really highlights the importance of programming for mental health, including mental health promotion strategies, psychotherapy and safe and proper medication for mental health during pregnancy,” says Rachel Brown, an MSc candidate and first author on the paper. “The research shows that there is an effect later on in life as well with infants that are born preterm or low birth weight. To intervene or advocate for mental health programs for the mom, the idea is that it sets up the health of the infants later on in life.”

While symptoms of depression during pregnancy vary from person to person, they may include:

  • Sleeping too much or not enough
  • Feeling sad or emotionally numb
  • Crying frequently
  • Having trouble concentrating, remembering things or making decisions
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Experiencing extreme mood swings
  • Being overly anxious about your baby
  • Experiencing low self-esteem or questioning your adequacy as a parent
  • Smoking, drinking alcohol or using illicit drugs
  • Having suicidal thoughts

If you’re feeling depressed during pregnancy, talk with your physician—and ask for a second opinion if your concerns are dismissed as “just a part of pregnancy.”

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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