What Is Postpartum Depression?

Woman With Postpartum Depression With Baby Lying On Bed At Home

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What Is Postpartum Depression?

Postpartum depression is a type of depression that occurs after giving birth. It’s more serious than the “baby blues” as it can interfere with a new mother’s ability to function.

It’s important for new mothers and family members to be on the lookout for signs of postpartum depression. It’s treatable and early intervention can be key to helping mothers feel better as quickly as possible.

Symptoms

It’s completely normal for new moms to feel tired, moody, or overwhelmed after giving birth. But when these symptoms interfere with a new mother’s ability to function and care for their new child, it can be a sign of postpartum depression.

Symptoms of postpartum depression vary from person to person. And they may fluctuate on a daily basis. In general, here are some symptoms that mothers with this condition experience:

  • Crying and unexplained feelings of sadness
  • Exhaustion yet inability to sleep
  • Eating too little or too much
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Sudden changes in mood
  • Feelings of disconnect with the new baby and guilt about not experiencing joy
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Irritability, anxiety, and anger that sometimes feel out of control
  • Trouble concentrating, staying on task, and remembering things
  • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Intrusive thoughts about self-harm or harming the baby

Symptoms typically appear within a few weeks of giving birth, but they may not surface until months later. They sometimes temporarily subside and then resurface.

Diagnosis

A physician or mental health professional can diagnose postpartum depression. This diagnosis would be made after an interview and assessment.

Many physicians routinely ask new mothers questions about whether they’ve had thoughts of hurting themselves or their babies and whether they’re feeling down. This is part of the screening process for postpartum depression. 

Physicians may run some tests to rule out any health issues that may be contributing to symptoms. Thyroid conditions, for example, can cause depression.

Once physical health issues have been ruled out, a diagnosis of postpartum depression might be made if the criteria are met.

Treatment

Treatment for postpartum depression may include medication, therapy, or a combination of both.

Antidepressants are commonly prescribed to treat it. These regulate the chemicals in the brain that manage emotions. But it can take a few weeks for them to take effect. And sometimes the first antidepressant doesn’t work, so a new medication may be tried.

Some antidepressants are safe to take if you’re breastfeeding, but others are not. Your physician will discuss treatment options with you as well as any side effects you might experience. 

Your physician may refer you to a therapist as well. A licensed mental health professional can help you find healthy ways to cope with stress as well as strategies for dealing with depression while you’re caring for yourself and your baby.

Causes

Postpartum depression affects up to 15% of mothers. While all the reasons some mothers develop postpartum depression and others don’t aren’t completely known, recent research has identified several risk factors.

Psychosocial risk factors for postpartum depression include:

  • Depression and anxiety during pregnancy
  • Stressful life events during pregnancy
  • Poor social support
  • Relationship conflict
  • Low income
  • Immigrant status
  • Young maternal age
  • Low partner support 

Postpartum depression may be related to sensitivity to hormonal fluctuations. Women who previously had the condition are more likely to experience it again after the birth of another baby.

Normal fluctuations in hormonal levels during pregnancy and after delivery can lead to changes in sleep patterns. And these interruptions in sleep can contribute to the onset of postpartum depression. 

One study found that difficulty falling asleep during the first three months after delivery can be a risk factor.

Prognosis

It’s important to seek treatment for postpartum depression. Without treatment, symptoms can worsen.

In addition to experiencing emotional pain, women with postpartum depression are at a greater risk of suicide. In extreme cases, women with the condition have hurt or even killed their babies. 

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

There’s also a greater risk that mothers with postpartum depression may struggle to form healthy attachments with their babies. This can have longer-term consequences on children and families. And it can also affect a couple’s relationship as well. 

Some people may find that symptoms resolve on their own. Others may have their symptoms cleared with medication, therapy, or a combination of the two. Most mothers feel better after about six months of treatment. 

Coping

Reaching out to others for help can be tough, but it is very important when you’re dealing with postpartum depression. 

Many new mothers feel too embarrassed or guilty to tell anyone that they’re struggling. But postpartum depression can happen to anyone after childbirth. So it’s important to remember that it’s not a sign of weakness and it doesn’t serve as evidence that you’re a bad parent.

You might ask someone to help you watch the baby so you can take a nap. Or you may need to tell your partner what kinds of things would be helpful for you right now.

Some people might say, “Let me know if you need anything,” but they may not know how to help. So request that they assist you with household chores or errands if these things seem overwhelming. Or simply let someone know that you need to talk.

It’s important to work on caring for yourself when you’re dealing with postpartum depression. Of course, this can be difficult when you’re caring for your new baby too.

But eating a well-balanced diet, getting a little exercise (once your doctor says it’s OK), and getting adequate rest can help you feel better.

It can also help to join a support group for new mothers. You’ll likely find that many of them are experiencing (or have experienced) postpartum depression as well.

A Word From Verywell

If you think you may be experiencing postpartum depression, talk to your physician right away. Share your symptoms, and talk about your concerns—even though it may be tough to do so. Your physician can assist you in getting the treatment you need to feel your best.

If you are concerned that a loved one may be experiencing postpartum depression, ask them how they are doing. Offer practical assistance or emotional support if you’re able to do so.

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