Not Just ‘Baby Blues’: Understanding Postpartum Depression
By Adrienne LeGendre, MD
Having a baby is a joyous occasion filled with excitement and the promise of new beginnings. But the period after childbirth can also be a difficult time for a mother. The act of giving birth is in itself exhausting. Add to that a major hormonal shift, sleep deprivation, and stress, and you have the perfect recipe for the “baby blues.” During the first couple of weeks after delivery, 70% to 80% of new mothers experience sadness, irritability, anxiety, and restlessness and find themselves unable to concentrate and crying for no apparent reason. It’s a perfectly normal response to the sometimes overwhelming physical and mental pressures of bringing a new life into the world.
But when a new mother has an extreme emotional and physical response after childbirth, especially for a longer duration than a couple of weeks, it’s likely more than just “baby blues.” Up to 15% of women suffer from postpartum depression. While the normal mild mood changes after birth tend to go away after hormones rebalance and mom and baby begin adjusting, postpartum depression typically doesn’t end without treatment.
What Postpartum Depression Looks Like
It’s sometimes difficult to recognize postpartum depression, often because a new mother is too busy caring for her baby to focus on herself. The condition also isn’t the same for every woman. Sometimes symptoms start out mild and become more severe. In other cases, symptoms come and go, and they often differ from woman to woman.
A key indicator of postpartum depression is not finding any enjoyment in caring for your newborn. While it’s common for a new mother to feel stressed, overwhelmed, and even sad, most women do have an underlying sense of happiness about the birth of their child. With postpartum depression, however, it’s not unusual for a mother to feel completely detached from her child.
The symptoms of postpartum depression can mimic those of the baby blues but are usually more intense and last longer. The condition can also present with any of the additional symptoms listed below. It’s important to point out that if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s most likely a result of something that’s not within your control and it does not at all reflect on you as a parent.
- Severe mood swings
- Frequent crying or the inability to stop crying
- Difficulty bonding with your baby
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Not eating enough or eating significantly more than usual
- Insomnia and restlessness or sleeping too much
- Fatigue and loss of energy
- Decreased interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Extreme irritability and/or anger
- Feelings of inadequacy as a parent
- Severe anxiety and panic attacks
- Feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt, and/or hopelessness
- Trouble focusing, concentrating, and/or thinking clearly
Seeking Help for Postpartum Depression
If you (or your partner) are having thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, please seek help immediately by calling emergency assistance, talking to a mental health professional, or contacting the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (call or text 988).
If you’ve given birth in the past few weeks and are experiencing any of the forementioned symptoms or simply don’t feel like yourself, contact your doctor as soon as possible. If you are dealing with postpartum depression, it’s not something that will just go away with time.
While there’s no specific test to diagnose postpartum depression, your doctor can evaluate your symptoms, discuss your health and family history, and order blood tests to determine if any underlying factors, such as a thyroid condition, could be causing postpartum depression symptoms.
If you’re diagnosed with postpartum depression, your physician may be able to provide treatment to help you manage the symptoms. Treatment may include antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications, mental health therapy, and support group participation. There are medications that can be prescribed that are safe even if you’re breastfeeding.
Your doctor should be made aware of any feelings of depression after childbirth, no matter the severity or duration of your symptoms. It’s always best to err on the side of caution, particularly when the health and safety of a mother and baby are potentially at risk. Never feel like you have to keep your feelings a secret or suffer in silence. With professional help, most women who experience postpartum depression can overcome their symptoms and get back to feeling like themselves again.