Postpartum Depression: What It Is, What To Do About It

Bringing a new baby into the world is a time of significant adjustment, generally with an underlying feeling of happiness and hope. For many women this change, in addition to wildly fluctuating hormones, can bring on a case of the “baby blues”.

A smaller number of new moms, and sometimes new dads, struggle with a more serious illness: Postpartum depression. It’s a disease that, without professional help and support, can overwhelm a person and seriously impact the relationship he or she has with her child even over the longer term.

Baby Blues versus Postpartum Depression

The National Institutes of Health in the U.S. estimate that as many as 8 in 10 new mothers get the “baby blues”, a condition that may leave a new mom feeling weepy, confused, anxious or even depressed.

“The symptoms appear during the first week [after giving birth], [and] last for a few hours to a few days,” wrote Dr. Anne-Claude Bernard-Bonnin in a paper for the Canadian Paediatric Society.

Postpartum depression, however, is not just the “baby blues”; it’s a moderate-to-severe form of depression that can impact a new mother any time from one month to a full year after she gives birth.

Left on its own, postpartum depression can impact a mother’s relationship with her baby and even the infant’s cognitive development, both of which can have longer-term consequences.

Identifying Postpartum Depression

To make a diagnosis, symptoms of depression need to be present for at least one month. It’s also important not to try to self-diagnose: There are other medical conditions, like hypothyroidism, that can cause similar symptoms.

According to Dr. Bernard-Bonnin, symptoms of postpartum depression may include:

  • a general feeling of distress,
  • fatigue,
  • anorexia,
  • sleep disturbances,
  • anxiety,
  • excessive guilt, and
  • suicidal thoughts.

Symptoms connected to post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, or even obsessive compulsive disorder can also emerge.

The National Institutes of Health add that the illness can leave a mother

  • unable to care for herself or her baby,
  • afraid to be left alone with the baby,
  • with negative feelings about the baby, or even thoughts of harming her child.

In recent years, researchers have found that as many as 10 percent of new fathers also experience a form of postpartum depression. While there’s a slight correlation to mothers who also face depression, the risk factors for dads are still generally unknown.

Treating Postpartum Depression

The specific cause of postpartum depression is unknown. In fact, it seems to be influenced by numerous circumstances, from physical and health issues to family relationships and other external or environmental conditions.

While stress management and diet should be considered for good overall mental health in general, the Mayo Clinic explains that postpartum depression is typically treated through

  • Counselling, which can provide skills and strategies to cope with different emotions.
  • Antidepressants, which “are a proven treatment for postpartum depression”, the clinic explains. Some medications can be used while breastfeeding with little risk of side effects.
  • Hormone therapy, using estrogen replacement to balance the sudden drop in estrogen after childbirth. This works for some women, although not consistently.

Postpartum Depression a Disease, Not a Reflection On Mom

“Everybody says it’s the most amazing moment in your life,” actress Brooke Shields told Oprah in 2005 about the birth of her first daughter, Rowan. “I don’t know how many people are really telling the truth because I think it becomes amazing—you have to grow into it. It was so dramatic and it was not glorious.”

Shields made headlines, and opened discussion about postpartum depression, when she went public about her own struggle with severe postpartum depression, an illness that has traditionally been surrounded by stigma and secrecy. She wrote a book about her journey, Down Came Rain.

Even within the medical community, there are feelings that the depression may often go unreported or undiagnosed.

“As a society, we expect it to be the happiest time of a woman’s life. A lot of women don’t report if they’re having symptoms,” said Susan Hatters Friedman, MD, a psychiatrist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology.

If you’re concerned that you or someone you care about may be struggling with postpartum depression, please contact us to find out how we can help.