This review covers research on the negative effects of prenatal depression and cortisol on fetal growth, prematurity and low birthweight. Although prenatal depression and cortisol were typically measured at around 20 weeks gestation, other research suggests the stability of depression and cortisol levels across pregnancy. Women with Dysthymia as compared to Major Depression Disorder had higher cortisol levels, and their newborns had lower gestational age and birthweight. The cortisol effects in these studies were unfortunately confounded by low serotonin and low dopamine levels which in themselves could contribute to non-optimal pregnancy outcomes. The negative effects of depression and cortisol were also potentially confounded by comorbid anxiety, by demographic factors including younger age, less education and lower SES of the mothers and by the absence of a partner or a partner who was unhappy about the pregnancy or a partner who was depressed. Substance use (especially caffeine use) was still another risk factor. All of these problems including prenatal depression, elevated cortisol, prematurity and low birthweight and even postpartum depression have been reduced by prenatal massage therapy provided by the women's partners. Massage therapy combined with group interpersonal psychotherapy was also effective for reducing depression and cortisol levels. Several limitations of these studies were noted and suggestions for future research included exploring other predictor variables like progesterone/estriol ratios, immune factors and genetic determinants. Further research is needed both on the potential use of cortisol as a screening measure and the use of other therapies that might reduce prenatal depression and cortisol in the women and prematurity and low birthweight in their infants.
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