Understanding Postpartum Depression

Postpartum depression is a serious illness but improves with treatment

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

You've just had a baby. It's the greatest moment of your life, and you love staring into his eyes, right? Or maybe you feel tired and worthless, can't stop crying and resent your child?

Perhaps it's a little of both. Having a baby can change your entire life, but it should not make you miserable. Postpartum depression is a very real condition that affects from 10 to 15 percent of women, or possibly more.

But it is not a condition to be ashamed of. Postpartum depression is common and it is treatable. Women suffering from it should seek the help of a therapist, OB/GYN, family doctor or other medical professional.

Understanding the causes and risk factors of postpartum depression can help you recognize the condition in yourself or others. Then the person suffering can get the treatment they need to enjoy life – and their child – once again.

What Causes Postpartum Depression?

There is not one single known cause of postpartum depression. During pregnancy and after birth, your body is undergoing dramatic changes. Physical, hormonal and emotional changes, plus the physical trauma to the body from giving birth, can all contribute to postpartum depression.

Although hormones likely play a part in bringing on the depression, other environmental factors can contribute as well. A new baby usually means a lot less sleep for the parents, and sleep deprivation can partly lead to depression or make its symptoms worse. Sleep loss can also be a symptom of depression, so the two conditions can interact.

New parents also have much less time for themselves, for work and for social relationships. All of these changes, as well as dealing with physical changes in your body after having a baby, can play a part in postpartum depression.

Some women are at higher risk for postpartum depression than others. Younger women, especially under age 20, and women who had an unplanned pregnancy are at higher risk for developing postpartum depression. So are women who already have a history of mental illness, such as depression, an anxiety disorder or bipolar disorder, or who have mental illness in their family.

Women who experienced other traumatic events around the time of a baby's birth are also at higher risk. If you're having problems related to finances, housing, intimate relationships, a substance abuse problem or even an issue related to your pregnancy or delivery, you may have an increased risk of having postpartum depression.

What Are the Symptoms?

Some of the symptoms of postpartum depression are easier to see than others. Not wanting to get out of bed, even to take care of your baby, or crying constantly are definitely symptoms, and they are usually ones that others might notice. Others may also notice if you begin to withdraw from family and friends or have severe mood swings.

But there are also silent symptoms of postpartum depression. A woman could be suffering from the condition without anyone else – even her partner – realizing it. If a woman is "going through the motions" but has lost all joy in her life or feels irritable about everything, those feelings could be symptoms.

A woman suffering from postpartum depression may also have difficulty bonding with her child, which can lead to feeling guilty, frustrated or inadequate. Or sometimes a woman may feel she's not good enough for her baby and that prevents her from being able to bond. Either way, these are symptoms that it's time to seek help.

Physical symptoms of postpartum depression are also a sign to seek treatment. If you have lost your appetite or feel unable to eat, if you're constantly unable to sleep, or if you feel completely exhausted all of the time, you may be experiencing postpartum depression. Of course, having a new baby will mean a certain amount of exhaustion, but if it feels unnatural or constant or you're just not sure, you should talk to a doctor about it.

The most severe symptoms of postpartum depression include thoughts of harming yourself, your baby or other children in the home. If these thoughts occur to you, you should seek the help of a care provider immediately.

I Think I Have Postpartum Depression. What Now?

It's important to realize that you cannot get a blood test or scan to receive a diagnosis of postpartum depression. However, you should seek help from a medical or mental healthcare provider. Your doctor, nurse, therapist or psychologist will ask you various questions or may give you a screening questionnaire to fill out.

The care provider will then make a diagnosis based on your symptoms and your answers to those questions, so it's important to be honest about your experiences. Treatment will vary for different individuals, based on their circumstances and needs and the risks and benefits of treatments.

The two primary types of treatment for postpartum depression are mental health medications and talk therapy. Often, a combination of both of these can be effective, though mothers who are breastfeeding will want to be sure to discuss the risks and benefits of medication with their doctor.

Meanwhile, there are other things you can do to help yourself as you overcome this illness. Most importantly, don't be afraid to ask for help. Ask your partner and family and friends to help you with caring for your baby, with housework, with errands and with any other tasks you need help doing.

Also make sure you are taking care of your own personal needs. Getting sufficient sleep is among the most important and valuable things you can do, but so is eating nutritiously and trying to get a little bit of physical activity each day.

It's also important to continue to communicate with others about how you're feeling. Discussing how you feel with family and friends, including your partner, can often be therapeutic on its own.

It's even better if you can have these conversations while out and about, both with and without your baby. Make time for a lunch with a friend on the weekend while your partner takes care of the baby, or have a family member watch the baby while you have an easygoing date night. Seek out friends with children who can meet for play dates or a brisk walk with strollers.

The key is to surround yourself with supportive individuals and to realize you are not alone. It can even help to seek out a postpartum depression support group, or at least a local play group of moms as you settle into your new role.

Most importantly, know that postpartum depression is not your fault and can be treated. Without treatment, the condition can stretch out for months or years. But once it is identified and you seek help, you are taking your first steps to enjoying your life and family once again.

Review Date: 
April 1, 2013