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Mothers of boys ‘much more likely to have postnatal depression’

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The odds of a woman developing postnatal depression increased by 79% when they had baby boys compared to baby girls, a UK study has found.

Overall, the University of Kent researchers identified that women who give birth to males were 71-79% more likely to develop postnatal depression, which they said gave healthcare professionals an “easy way” to identify those at risk. 

“Postnatal depression is a condition that is avoidable”

Sarah Johns

Furthermore, women whose births had complications were 174% more likely to experience postnatal depression, compared to those women who had no complications.

As a result of their findings, study authors Dr Sarah Johns and Dr Sarah Myers, said recognising that both male infants and birth complications were risk factors should help health professionals in identifying and supporting women who may by more likely to develop the condition.

Their research also showed that, while women with a tendency towards symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress were always at increased risk of postnatal depression, they had reduced odds of developing it after experiencing birth complications.

This was likely because these women may receive greater post-birth support because their mental health concerns were previously recognised, said the researchers.

The suggested that this finding indicated that interventions to support women could be effective in preventing postnatal depression developing.

Dr Johns said: “Postnatal depression is a condition that is avoidable, and it has been shown that giving women at risk extra help and support can make it less likely to develop.

“The finding that having a baby boy or a difficult birth increases a woman’s risk gives health practitioners two new and easy ways to identify women who would particularly benefit from additional support in the first few weeks and months,” she said.

The authors said they decided to assess whether there was a relationship between the sex of infants and postnatal depression because of the known link between inflammatory immune response and the development of depressive symptoms.

Both the gestation of male foetuses and the experience of birth complications have documented associations with increased inflammation, yet their relationships with postnatal depression were previously unclear.

Many known risk factors for depressive symptoms are associated with activation of inflammatory pathways, opening up the potential for identifying new risk factors based on their inflammation causing effects, noted the researchers.

The study, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, used complete reproductive histories of 296 women from contemporary, low fertility populations.

“Currently only around half of NHS trusts in England provide a specialist maternal mental health service”

Joy Kemp

Joy Kemp, global advisor at the Royal College of Midwives, said: “This is interesting research and any information that contributes to our knowledge about postnatal depression is useful.

“What is important is that our maternity services are able to offer women the support they need throughout and after their pregnancy,” she said. “Improving continuity of carer will support this. There is also a need to invest in specialist mental health midwives and maternal mental health services.

“Every trust and board with maternity services should have a specialist midwife in post to enable women who are unwell to get the very best care and support they need,” she said.

She added: “Currently only around half of NHS trusts in England provide a specialist maternal mental health service to women and this is simply not good enough.”

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