A recent study conducted at the Kaiser Foundation Research Institute indicates a connection between a woman’s emotional well-being during early pregnancy and the chance she will deliver a child prematurely. These preterm births, occurring before the 37th week of pregnancy, are thought to generate $26 billion in healthcare expenses in the United States each year.

Kaiser’s De-Kun Li, MD, who published his findings in the online journal, Human Reproduction, says his findings indicate the importance of screening pregnant women for depression as a routine part of prenatal care. It also suggests treating a woman for depression at the earliest possible moment may improve her child’s chances of good health and a full-term delivery.

Li and his colleagues used the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale to determine the emotional state of 791 women in the early part of their pregnancies. All women spoke English, were expected to remain pregnant until delivery, and were an average of 10 weeks into gestation at the time of assessment.

According to the scale, women scoring between 16 and 21 were experiencing significant depression. A score of 22 or higher signals severe depression. Of the 791 women, 326 (41.2%) scored 16 or higher, with 21.7% of that group scoring 22 or higher.

The chance of preterm delivery increased by 60% for mothers who scored in the range of significant depression. Those with severe depression were found to be at more than 200% the risk of preterm delivery than women who were not depressed.

Various studies recently concluded indicate mood disorders during pregnancy are likely to affect the mother’s placental hormones and placental function. This psychopathological influence is thought to be especially pronounced when depression is present.

When extenuating circumstances are also present, the risk of preterm delivery is increased. Women who had experienced previous problems with fertility, stressful events in their lives, or were obese were even more likely to deliver early when they were also diagnosed with depression.

The Li study, funded by the California Public Health Foundation, involved a limited number of study participants who were tested for depression only once during their pregnancies. These limitations invite further, more detailed study but imply nevertheless the importance of a woman’s emotional well-being on the health of her children.