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New research shows that antidepressants improve symptoms of postpartum and postnatal depression in new mothers. Cavan Images/Getty Images
  • A new study finds a type of antidepressant can significantly help women who have depression after giving birth.
  • The team also found that the treatment also appeared to improve their child’s physical and emotional well-being.
  • Approximately 10 to 15% of new mothers experience postnatal depression, however, only 3% take SSRIs.

A new study finds that antidepressants can significantly help women who experience depression after giving birth.

These antidepressants, called, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may significantly boost the long-term physical and mental health of new mothers with postpartum depression and their children, new research shows.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open on August 29, found that women with postnatal depression, which is defined as depression following childbirth, who took SSRIs, such as fluoxetine and sertraline after childbirth had stronger relationship satisfaction and a lower risk of depression up to five years later.

SSRI treatment also appeared to improve their child’s physical and emotional well-being.

Postpartum depression is often used interchangeably with postnatal depression, but postnatal usually refers to issues with the infant and mother, while postpartum refers to the adult parent.

Postpartum depression is more common than many people may realize. The American Psychological Association states that about 1 in 7 women may develop postpartum depression, the onset of which may occur up to a year following childbirth.

However, only 3% of people with postpartum depression take SSRIs, according to data in the United Kingdom.

Despite this, there’s plenty of data supporting the benefits of using SSRIs to treat depression experienced by people after having a child, but less clear is how these medications affect women and their children in the long run.

The lack of evidence on the long-term consequences may be a common reason women with postnatal depression avoid SSRIs after giving birth, past research suggests.

“This study of tens of thousands of mothers showed that taking antidepressants in the postpartum for depression brought long-term benefits to the family. Mothers shouldn’t have guilt about taking care of their own mental health,” Dr. Susan Hatters Friedman, a professor of psychiatry, reproductive biology, and pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University, told Healthline.

Researchers at King’s College London evaluated the health data of 61,081 mother-child pairs sourced from the Norwegian Mother, Father and Child Cohort Study conducted between 1999 to 2008.

The women joined the study between their 17th and 18th weeks of pregnancy and were followed for five years after giving birth.

Of the group, 8,671 mothers met the criteria for a postnatal depression diagnosis and 177 took SSRIs soon after giving birth.

The researchers analyzed self-reported depression scores and the mother’s satisfaction from childbirth to five years postpartum along with the child’s health outcomes, including their motor and language development and behavioral health, at ages 1.5, 3, and 5.

They found that more severe postnatal depression was associated with several negative health outcomes for both the mother—including recurrent episodes of depression and poorer relationship satisfaction—and the child—such as motor and language development issues and attention-deficit/hyperactivity (ADHD) symptoms.

SSRIs, however, appeared to reduce the risk of maternal depression in women up to five years after giving birth.

SSRIs were also associated with a lower risk of developmental delays and ADHD symptoms in the child.

There was no evidence suggesting that SSRI use increased the risk of childhood psychopathology or motor and language delays.

“The main takeaway from this study for me is that the researchers found in this patient population that the use of SSRIs to treat postpartum depression improved both maternal and child outcomes,” said Dr. Jill Purdie, a board-certified OB-GYN and medical director at Pediatrix Medical Group in Atlanta, Georgia.

Antidepressants such as SSRIs are commonly recommended for postnatal depression. However, there’s been limited evidence on how the treatment impacts the mother’s and child’s long-term health.

Researchers suspect the lack of data on the long-term consequences may have prevented many women with postnatal depression from taking SSRIs.

Furthermore, some women may put their family’s health first and de-prioritize their own well-being.

It’s crucial to treat postpartum depression as the condition is linked to poorer health in mothers, children, and other family members, experts explain.

“Many women suffering from postpartum depression have difficulty with their normal activities of daily living, including taking care of themselves and their children,” said Purdie.

Postpartum recovery is a journey, which is why all postpartum women should be screened for depression. Despite the prevalence of this debilitating mental health condition, it is often missed during screenings due to various factors.

“The mental health of the mother is critical to the whole family,” said Friedman.

There are standard depression screening tools and questionnaires, but even simply asking about mood symptoms can be helpful, said Purdie.

As this study shows, SSRIs may prevent kids from developing ADHD symptoms and protect mothers from chronic depression.

In addition, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved Zuranolone, the first-ever oral pill to treat severe postpartum depression. The drug is designed for acute, short-term use.

“Mothers who have effective treatment of postpartum depression are able to better bond with their infant, strengthening the mother-baby bond and the family altogether,” Friedman said.

Other interventions, including counseling and support groups, can improve postpartum depression outcomes, too, and help women return to their everyday lives so they can care for themselves and their children.

“This study reinforces the need to adequately treat postpartum depression, not only for the benefit to the mother but also to her children,” Purdie said.

New research found that antidepressants improved the long-term physical and mental health of new mothers with postnatal depression and their children.

Postpartum depression affects about 1 in 7 new mothers. However, only a fraction are diagnosed, and even fewer take SSRIs.

The new study sheds light on how SSRI use in women with postnatal and postpartum depression may benefit both maternal and childhood health.