What is Postpartum Depression?

How is postpartum depression different from baby blues?

Pregnancy can certainly be more difficult for some than others, but nearly all share the same light at the end of the tunnel; the anticipated joy of bringing their new baby home. Unfortunately, reality immediately steps in, and, even for those with a strong support system and more than sufficient resources, life is pretty much turned upside down. At least in the beginning, that joy can be hard to find.

The experience of giving birth comes with a roller coaster of emotions. Excitement, fear, happiness, and anxiety can all compete for top billing at the same time. Following the actual birth, hormone levels (estrogen and progesterone) rapidly drop causing chemical changes in the brain that can lead to mood swings. Add this to the new schedule of ongoing sleep deprivation and you have the ideal recipe for emotional issues.

Many, if not most, new mothers experience some level of what is called “baby blues”. This is normally a period, starting a day or two after delivery and lasting for maybe two weeks, when there are mild symptoms of depression, like mood swings, anxiousness, crying and trouble sleeping despite being exhausted. This is fairly normal, and, within a short period of time, these symptoms subside and do not cause any lasting problems. When these symptoms do not go away, however, and, instead, continue to get worse, this is more serious and may actually be a more severe and long-lasting form of depression known as postpartum depression.

Postpartum depression, which is more common than most people realize, is a mood disorder in which feelings of sadness, anxiety, and exhaustion can be so extreme that they affect a woman’s ability to care for herself or her baby. Rather than the result of a single cause and not because of something the mother does or does not do, postpartum depression is likely due to a combination of physical and emotional factors. Some of those that may make it more likely include:

  • Previous depression or postpartum depression
  • Heredity, a family history of depression or mental illness
  • Traumatic life event occurring during pregnancy
  • Substance abuse
  • Difficult delivery or significant issues with the baby’s health
  • Ambiguous feelings about being pregnant
  • Lack of a strong support system

It takes a healthcare professional to diagnose postpartum depression. Some of the more common symptoms are listed below. A woman who experiences some or all of these should see her doctor as soon as possible.

Symptoms of Postpartum Depression

  • Feeling sad, hopeless, empty or overwhelmed
  • Moody, irritable or restless
  • Excessive crying
  • Difficulty bonding or forming an emotional attachment to the baby
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Inability to sleep (insomnia) or sleeping too much
  • Overwhelming fatigue or lack of energy
  • Physical aches and pains
  • Losing interest in activities normally enjoyed
  • Experiencing anger or rage
  • Fear of not being a good mother
  • Feeling guilty or inadequate
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
  • Severe anxiety and panic attacks
  • Thoughts of harming self or baby
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Postpartum depression is not a weakness or the result of a character flaw of the mother: it is a complication of the birth process. It can be a very serious complication and, without treatment, can last for months or years, having long-term effects on the health of the mother and the baby’s development. Promptly seeking professional treatment can help the mother’s symptoms to be managed and that elusive joy and bonding to be found.