Antidepressant prevention of postnatal depression

Postnatal depression is a common and important disorder with negative implications for the mother, the infant and the wider family. Women who are not depressed, but at high risk of postnatal depression, such as those with a previous history of a postpartum mood disorder, may wish to consider antidepressant prevention during pregnancy or early postpartum. This review addresses the effectiveness of such treatment. Only two small trials met the criteria for inclusion. Both trials used medication immediately postpartum. The drugs were nortriptyline, a tricylic antidepressant (TCA) and sertraline, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). Both drugs were compared only to placebo. Nortripyline was not shown to have any benefit over placebo; there was some evidence that sertraline was effective both in reducing the incidence of recurrent postpartum depression and in increasing the time to recurrence. However, both trials involved only very small numbers of women and did not use intention to treat analyses. There is, therefore, no clear evidence for the use of these antidepressants in the prevention of postnatal depression.

Authors' conclusions: 

It is not possible to draw any clear conclusions about the effectiveness of antidepressants given immediately postpartum in preventing postnatal depression and, therefore, cannot be recommended for prophylaxis of postnatal depression, due to the lack of clear evidence. Larger trials are needed which also include comparisons of antidepressant drugs with other prophylactic treatments to reflect clinical practice, and examine adverse effects for the foetus and infant, as well as assess women's attitudes to the use of antidepressants at this time.

Read the full abstract...

Postnatal depression is a common and important complication of childbearing. Untreated depression can lead to potentially negative effects on the foetus and infant, in addition to serious morbidity for the mother. The use of antidepressants during pregnancy for prevention of postnatal depression is unclear, due to the possibility of adverse effects on the mother and developing foetus, and the difficulty of reliably identifying the women who would go on to develop postnatal depression.


To evaluate the effectiveness of different antidepressant drugs in addition to standard clinical care in the prevention of postnatal depression.
To compare the effectiveness of different antidepressant drugs and with any other form of intervention for postnatal depression i.e. hormonal, psychological or social support.
To assess any adverse effects of antidepressant drugs in either the mother or the foetus/infant.

Search strategy: 

CCDANCTR-Studies and CCDANCTR-References were searched on 11-6-2007.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised studies of antidepressants alone or in combination with another treatment, compared with placebo or a psychosocial intervention in non-depressed pregnant women or women who had given birth in the previous six weeks (i.e. women at risk of postnatal depression)

Data collection and analysis: 

Data were extracted independently from the trial reports by the authors. Missing information was requested from investigators wherever possible. Data were sought to allow an "intention to treat" analysis.

Main results: 

Two trials involving a total of 73 participants fulfilled the inclusion criteria for this review. Both looked at women with a past history of postpartum depression. Nortriptyline (n=26) did not show any benefit over placebo (n=25). Sertraline (n=14) reduced the recurrence of postnatal depression and the time to recurrence when compared with placebo (n=8). Intention-to-treat analyses were not carried out in either trial.