CHICAGO (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS)Screening mothers for postpartum depression is critical, because of the potential negative consequences for the child, according to Nerissa S. Bauer, MD, MPH.

Postpartum depression is the best known mood disorder related to pregnancy, but it’s not the only one. Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders exist along a spectrum, she told attendees at the American Academy of Pediatrics annual meeting. That spectrum includes prenatal depression, prenatal anxiety, “baby blues,” postpartum depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PSTD), and postpartum anxiety with panic attacks and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Baby blues in mothers after delivery – temporary, mild symptoms of depression that don’t interfere with caring for the baby and aren’t cause for alarm – are a normal occurrence and have been reported worldwide. About 50%-80% of women experience baby blues. These symptoms tend to peak around 5 days post partum. “Pediatricians can provide reassurance, emotional support, and demystification” in helping women cope with baby blues, said Dr. Bauer, a pediatrician at Indiana University, Indianapolis.

Postpartum mood disorders

Postpartum depression (PPD), however, is serious and requires intervention. An estimated 10%-20% of new mothers experience PPD, but the numbers are much higher in at-risk communities. Up to 48% of mothers in low-income households and 40%-60% of adolescent mothers in low-income households experience it. Yet only about 15% of these higher-risk women seek treatment for PPD ( Pediatrics. 2010 Nov;126[5]:1032-9 ).

PPD symptoms are similar to the usual symptoms of a depressive disorder: depressed mood, irritability, changes in sleep and/or appetite, fatigue, sleepiness, loss of interest in activities, inability to feel pleasure in everyday life, guilt, difficulty concentrating, indecisiveness, low energy, despair, and feelings of worthlessness. The biggest difference – and most important symptom – is that women with PPD may have thoughts about harming not only themselves but also their child. This symptom calls for immediate intervention and sometimes can be a sign of postpartum psychosis.

Postpartum psychosis is rare, occurring in about 1-3 out of 1,000 women, but its seriousness requires immediate medical attention, including hospitalization in most cases. The best established risk factor is preexisting bipolar disorder. Postpartum psychosis usually occurs in the first 4 weeks after delivery, with symptoms that include paranoia, severe mood shifts, hallucinations, delusions, and suicidal and/or homicidal thoughts.

Fathers also can experience depression after a baby’s birth: An estimated 6% of fathers develop paternal depression, but the numbers are triple that among fathers whose children are enrolled in Early Head Start programs, Dr. Bauer said. Paternal depression often co-occurs with postpartum maternal depression, particularly when poverty and substance abuse are contributing factors.

Fewer practitioners may be aware of postpartum anxiety disorders, even though they affect 9%-30% of women. These disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, OCD, and PTSD, either as a preexisting diagnosis or occurring after delivery. Women develop an intensive fear about their child’s well-being and worry that they aren’t able to parent adequately or effectively ( Zero to Three. 2009 May:1-6 ).

Your role in screening mothers

It’s essential that you screen parents for depression, particularly mothers for PPD, because of the potential negative consequences for the child. Research has shown that children of mothers with PPD are at risk for failure to thrive, and have a greater likelihood of mental health conditions, developmental delays, lower IQ scores, sleep problems, and difficulties at school ( Infant Behav Dev. 2011 Feb;34[1]:1-14 ). Further, mothers with PPD are less likely to breastfeed and more likely to stop breastfeeding early, studies have shown ( Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2006 Mar;160[3]:279-84 ).

The risk factors for PPD often occur together, with each additional one adding to the overall risk. As incidence estimates show, teens and those with low income are at higher risk, as are those with less education and any type of additional financial hardship. Other factors that increase women’s risk include interpersonal violence, a lack of social support, a history or family history of anxiety or depression, poor physical or mental health in general, and substance abuse ( Depress Anxiety. 2017 Feb;34[2]:178-87 ).

Treatment for postpartum depression or anxiety can include medication (typically with SSRIs), therapy, a visit to the patient’s ob.gyn., or referral to crisis intervention or a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health professional.

“Early treatment shows best results,” Dr. Bauer said. Yet less than half of mothers experiencing PPD seek treatment for it.

“Mothers may feel they ‘are strong enough’ and do not need help,” Dr. Bauer said. Or they feel they have to use what limited energy they have on their baby, or they worry about being “labeled as crazy or unable to care for their baby,” she said. Cultural factors also can play a role in this reticence to seek help ( Qual Health Res. 2008 Sep;18[9]:1161-73 ).

“However, mothers are receptive to communication with their child’s pediatrician,” Dr. Bauer said, creating an opportunity for screening that mothers may not otherwise get.

Screening tools and procedures

Despite the risks to infants from maternal depression, less than half of pediatricians screen mothers for PPD, Dr. Bauer said. American Academy of Pediatrics surveys of 778 pediatricians in 2004 and 2013 found that the proportion of pediatricians screening or asking mothers about depression increased from 33% to 44% during that decade, driven partly by the “belief that family screening is in the scope of practice,” she explained. Physicians who asked about the child’s mood were more likely to ask mothers about their mood too, the surveys found ( J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2016 Feb-Mar;37[2]:113-20 ).

Medical organizations differ in their screening recommendations, although all agree screening is important. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommend screening mothers at least once in the perinatal period ( Obstet Gynecol. 2015;125:1268–71 ; JAMA. 2016;315[4]:388-406 ). The AAP advocates a more aggressive approach, recommending screening at each of the 1, 2, 4, and 6-month child well-visits (“Bright Futures: Guidelines for Health Supervision of Infants, Children, and Adolescents,” 4th Edition [Elk Grove Village, Ill.: American Academy of Pediatrics Publishing, 2017]).

The two preferred screening tools for PPD are the Edinburgh Postpartum Depression Scale (EPDS) and the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ) .

The former is fast and simple, requiring less than 5 minutes for mothers to answer 10 items about their symptoms in the previous 7 days. The EPDS has a maximum score of 30; anything above 12-13 should prompt further examination or referral. Women scoring a 10 should be reassessed 2 weeks later, unless they answer affirmatively to item 10 on suicidal ideation, in which case they should be referred immediately.

You also can use a shortened form of the EPDS as a first step, asking about the three EPDS items related to anxiety: “self-blame, feeling panicky, and [feeling] anxious or worried for no good reason,” Dr. Bauer said, explaining “the score should be multiplied by 10 and divided by 3, so the cutoff is greater than or equal to 10.”

The PHQ-9 asks about symptoms in the previous 2 weeks. Scores of 10-14 indicate minor depression or mild major depression, and scores of 15-19 indicate moderate depression. Mothers require intervention if they score at least 20, or in the case of teenage mothers, if they score at least 11 or have suicidal thoughts. Like the shortened EPDS-3, the PHQ has a shortened two-question option you can use as surveillance before fully screening mothers: 1. Have you felt down, depressed, or hopeless in the past 2 weeks? 2. Have you felt little interest or pleasure in doing things in the past 2 weeks?

If mothers have a positive screen, Dr. Bauer recommended that practices document it, according to protocols they’ve already set up.

“It’s not unlike domestic violence, maternal substance abuse, or parental smoking habits,” she said. “The score need not be noted, but [should] include details such as the name of the screener used, interpretation of the results, and when a referral was made.”

After making a referral to her ob.gyn. or a mental health professional, you can continue to help mothers by offering support and reassurance, reminding them that they are not alone and not to blame for depression, and that treatment can help them. Encourage parents to seek your advice and support as a pediatrician and use you as a resource to refer them to services that can help, such as lactation consultants and home-visiting programs.

Dr. Bauer offerred the following recommendations for clinical practice:

Dr. Bauer advised consulting the following websites for information regarding postpartum depression:

Dr. Bauer said she had no relevant financial disclosures. She reported that her spouse is an employee of Anthem and holds Anthem stocks/bonds. No external funding was used for the presentation.


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