Postpartum depression is depression that affects new mothers. Depression is more serious than feeling sad or down for a short period; people with depression feel sad, empty, or anxious for extended periods. Symptoms may be mild or severe and can interfere with daily activities, responsibilities, and personal relationships. Fortunately, however, treatment for depression—including postpartum depression—is often effective.
The symptoms of depression and postpartum depression are similar. The main difference is that postpartum depression affects women who have recently given birth. And because postpartum depression may affect a new mother’s ability to care for her baby, effective treatment is important for the health of both mother and child.
Postpartum depression is common. According the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it affects approximately 13 percent of new mothers.
If you experience postpartum depression, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or a bad mother. Rather, postpartum depression is simply a complication of giving birth, and like other complications, it can be managed with treatment.
There are several factors that can contribute to the development of postpartum depression. Hormonal changes associated with pregnancy and childbirth are thought to trigger depression in new mothers. Specifically, levels of female hormones estrogen and progesterone increase greatly during pregnancy and then quickly return to normal with 24 hours of childbirth. It is thought that this dramatic shift in hormone levels may contribute to depression in new mothers.
Another possible biological trigger for postpartum depression is a change in thyroid hormone levels, which can fall after giving birth. Low levels of thyroid hormone are associated with symptoms of depression. Your doctor can measure thyroid hormone levels with a blood test.
Other changes and events surrounding the birth or your baby may contribute to postpartum depression. These include:
Some women may have a higher risk of developing postpartum depression. The following factors may increase risk:
If you have any of the risk factors described above, with your doctor’s help, you can take measures to prevent postpartum depression. If you have a history of depression, discuss it with your doctor as soon as you know you are pregnant. Your doctor can monitor you for early signs of depression as well as recommend support groups or counseling. As well, you may be screened for postpartum depression after your baby is born. Sometimes, women with a history of depression are prescribed antidepressant medication during pregnancy.
In addition to postpartum depression, new mothers may also experience a milder period of sadness call the “baby blues”. Characterized by mood swings, sad or anxious feelings, crying spells, loss of appetite, and difficulty sleeping, the baby blues will usually go away within days or a week and don’t require treatment.
Postpartum psychosis is a rare but severe mental disorder affecting new mothers. One to four out of every 1,000 births may be affected, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Symptoms include seeing things that aren’t there, feeling confused, having rapid mood swings, and trying to hurt yourself or your baby. Postpartum psychosis usually begins within two weeks following childbirth. Women with mental health problems, including bipolar or schizoaffective disorders, have a greater risk of postpartum psychosis. Postpartum psychosis requires immediate treatment.
If you have thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, call 9-1-1 immediately.
Pregnancy and childbirth are of course major life changes—both emotionally and physically. It can be normal to feel down or sad after your baby is born. When the following symptoms of depression following childbirth are severe and last for more than two weeks, however, you should call your doctor.
Symptoms unique to postpartum depression include: