What Is Postpartum Depression?

Most women will experience the ups and downs of being a new mom in the days and weeks following childbirth. Mood swings, fatigue, and crying are all part of the transition you can expect to go through. But if those feelings are negatively impacting your daily life several weeks after giving birth, you might be dealing with something more serious.

Postpartum depression is a type of depressive disorder experienced by women after giving birth. This type of depression causes feelings of sadness, anxiety, and exhaustion that can make it difficult for mothers to care for themselves and their child. While many women experience the “baby blues” after childbirth, many don’t need treatment and feel better within a few weeks. However, women with postpartum depression have symptoms that are more severe and last longer.

Research from the Center for Disease Control found the prevalence of postpartum depression ranged from 11.5% to 20.1%, depending on location. While there is no single cause for postpartum depression, contributing factors include a sudden decrease in certain hormones (such as estrogen and progesterone), sleep deprivation, and physical exhaustion, all resulting from the pregnancy and birth.

Signs of Postpartum Depression

  • Sadness, hopelessness, and helplessness that doesn’t go away
  • Feelings of guilt and worthlessness
  • Decreased activity
  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Loss of energy
  • Difficulty falling asleep or sleeping too much
  • Overeating and weight gain or loss of appetite
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Withdrawal from social activities

The symptoms of postpartum depression are similar to the above symptoms of depression, but the Center for Disease Control says this particular mood disorder may also include:

  • Crying more often than usual
  • Feelings of anger
  • Withdrawing from loved ones
  • Extreme worry about your baby or feeling distant from your baby
  • Worrying that you will hurt your baby
  • Feeling guilty about not being a good parent or doubting your ability to care for your baby

Emergency Help for Postpartum Depression

If you are experiencing suicidal ideation or thoughts of harming your baby, immediately seek help from your partner or loved ones in taking care of your baby and call 911.

Diagnosing Postpartum Depression

Many women equate their symptoms with the baby blues, and consequently, ignore the severity of their depression. What they don’t realize is that the intensity and length of the symptoms are often the first indication that something is going on. That’s why it’s always a good idea to discuss how you are feeling with your doctor during the first postpartum checkup.

Diagnosing postpartum depression can involve a number of physical and psychiatric exams, including:

  • Lab tests to rule out potential medical reasons for your mood
  • Diagnostic criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)
  • Your doctor will also ask about the severity of symptoms and the length of time you have been experiencing them. All of this information will help determine the proper diagnosis and treatment plan for you.

A suicide hotline has been established to take calls from people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts or their loved ones who are concerned. In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-274-8255 (1-800-273-TALK).

Treating Postpartum Depression

Postpartum depression is treatable with medications and/or behavioral health interventions. If you or someone you love is experiencing a depressive episode after childbirth, it is important that you seek help from your primary care physician or a mental health professional.

Left untreated, postpartum depression can last for months or years and severely impact a woman’s health and ability to bond with her baby. In some cases, severe postpartum depression can result in suicide or harm to the child.

But with proper treatment – which includes a combination of psychotherapy, medication, and self-management – many women can begin to feel better within three to four weeks.

Psychotherapy for Postpartum Depression

Otherwise known as “talk therapy,” psychotherapy can help new mothers understand their diagnosis and how it impacts their life. The therapist will also work with them to develop strategies that decrease the severity of the symptoms. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which emphasizes the important role of thinking in how we feel and what we do, is an effective form of treatment for women dealing with postpartum depression.

Antidepressant Medication

A physician may recommend an antidepressant, which acts on the brain chemicals that are involved in mood regulation, to help treat postpartum depression. Many women have questions about the safety of taking medications while breastfeeding, and while these medications are generally considered safe for both mother and baby, it’s important to talk with your health care provider about potential risks.

Self-Management

Professional help is the only way to treat postpartum depression, but your health care provider may recommend that you also avoid isolation, maintain a healthy diet, participate in physical activity (after you are cleared), connect with friends and family outside of the house, set reasonable expectations for yourself (don’t take on too much), and ask for help.