Pregnancy can be a stressful time. Add in a pandemic and that stress can be exacerbated.


A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that children whose mothers had depression or anxiety in pregnancy had poorer skills in these areas later in life: language, social-emotional, cognitive, motor and adaptive behavior.


The researchers looked at 191 studies of more than 195,000 mother-child pairs.


Dr. Jeffrey Newport, director of women’s reproductive mental health at UT Health Austin, the clinical practice of Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, says we also know that mothers who are experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy can have babies that are premature or born at a low birth weight; those mothers also can have high blood pressure or preeclampsia.


Mothers who are depressed or anxious also might do other harmful things, such as smoke, drink alcohol or use pain-relieving medication.


This year, doctors are concerned about the influence the anxiety surrounding COVID-19 might have on babies later. Pregnant mothers have had added concerns surrounding what happens if they get the coronavirus, worries about loss of income, and worries about giving birth during a pandemic, including who can and cannot be with them.


They’re also more socially isolated, which can contribute to depression and anxiety.


Newport recommends that pregnant women who have a history of depression or anxiety continue taking their medication as well as get peer support and behavioral therapy. Most medications used for depression have not been shown to cause an increase in birth defects, he says. Some newer medications have been studied only in animals because researchers don’t study medications on pregnant women.


Reducing depression symptoms while pregnant also can help after giving birth. Women who are depressed during pregnancy have a 1 in 3 chance of having postpartum depression; women who have had depression sometime in their lives have a 1 in 4 chance of having postpartum depression; and women who have never had depression only have a 1 in 100 chance of developing postpartum depression.


When pregnant women are coming into doctors’ offices worried about the coronavirus and how it might affect themselves or their babies, Newport reminds them of what they can control: taking measures such as wearing masks and staying physically distanced from other people. They also can reach out for social support, continue to take medications and do therapies to try to help reduce anxiety.


So far, pregnant women have had a lower rate of coronavirus infection compared with nonpregnant women, though their risk for more severe symptoms is increased. Newport suspects the lower rates of infection are because they take more precautions such as wearing masks and physical distancing to protect their babies.