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Growing, delivering, and nourishing a baby requires sheer physical strength, stamina, and quite a bit of hormonal help. It’s easy to forget the powerful effect of those hormones, especially with rising and falling levels throughout the whole process, and the impact they can have on a woman – particularly on her mental health. More and more evidence is showing the widespread prevalence of maternal mental illness: studies have shown that approximately 10 to 20 percent of mothers can struggle with depression, beginning in the prenatal period and not just after birth. That translates to potentially 1 in 5 women.

In addition to this alarming statistic, the impact on children is also troubling. Children of depressed mothers can be adversely affected emotionally and cognitively; they may be harder to console, have sleeping problems, and increased risks for developmental or psychiatric problems down the road. With a firm and obvious link established between postpartum depression and poor parenting behaviors, several studies have aimed to improve parenting of mothers with postpartum depression. Now a new intervention may provide some insight into the complex interplay of brain chemistry, hormones, and postpartum depression: the use of oxytocin – a crucial hormone for labor, lactation, and maternal bonding – has been tested as a powerful treatment method.

Women with naturally high levels of oxytocin have been found to display parenting behaviors likely to promote and increase bonding; conversely, two studies looking at the connection between oxytocin and postpartum depression found that women with lower levels of oxytocin during pregnancy had higher scores of depressive symptoms.

Only two studies have looked in-depth at the use of oxytocin as a method of treatment and, in both studies, it was actually found that when the hormone was administered, women reported poorer moods.

The mixed findings regarding oxytocin and its effects – whether in its natural state in the body or artificially administered –  suggests the need for a larger sample size and more studies. With continued research, scientists may be able to more fully understand the impact of this hormone and the important role it plays in preventing or prompting maternal mental illness.

Stay tuned for more articles this month on maternal mental illness and learn about symptoms to watch for in all stages of planning, pregnancy and parenting.