What is Postpartum Depression?
The baby blues. It’s a commonly used term to describe the tears and sadness that often follow having a baby. There’s even a comic strip with that name.
But the real thing is no laughing matter.
According to the Post Partum Depression Alliance of Illinois, the baby blues affect up to 80 percent of all new mothers, who may notice symptoms within the first three days of giving birth. While the baby blues can go away on their own, in some cases symptoms can continue for weeks.
Then, it’s no longer “just the baby blues.” It is postpartum depression.
Postpartum depression (PPD) is the most common medical complication from childbirth. Yet, without proper screening, up to half of PPD cases may go undiagnosed.
Further, a new mother may be reluctant to talk about how they are feeling for fear that they will be judged or be seen as an unfit mother.
Postpartum depression can take a toll on new mothers. According to PostpartumDepression.org, in the U.S., estimates of new mothers identified with PPD each year vary by state from 8% to 20% with an overall average of 11.5%.
Postpartum Depression Symptoms
Having a baby changes everything in a mother’s life, including her body and her ability to get enough sleep, which alone can be a huge contributor to depression. Plus, after birth there is a dramatic drop in hormones – including estrogen, progesterone, and other hormones produced by the thyroid gland. This hormone drop may contribute to PPD by causing feelings of exhaustion, sluggishness and depression.
While feeling sad, moody, or tired is normal in the first few weeks after childbirth, PPD is different. Common symptoms include anxiety, severe irritability, and nagging self-doubt about mothering skills.
Postpartum Depression Impacts More Than Just Mothers
Postpartum depression is not just for mothers. Fathers may experience many of the same symptoms for some of the same reasons (sleep deprivation, for example.) Some have referred to it as “Sad Dads,” and a recent study shows the problem is far more prevalent than previously thought.
Parents.com points to a lack of sleep as “probably the biggest culprit when it comes to depression among new dads.” Others include a history of depression, financial challenges, and a “sick, colicky, or premature baby.”
“Any parent facing the emotional and social upheavals that a baby ushers in is at risk for depression,” says Sara Rosenquist, Ph.D., a therapist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
She adds that adoptive parents are also vulnerable.
Postpartum Psychosis: A More Severe and Potentially Dangerous Illness
There is an even more severe form of PPD known as postpartum psychosis. The Action on Postpartum Psychosis Network writes that there are some women (like those with a history of bipolar disorder) who are at much higher risk.
Postpartum psychosis symptoms are considerably more dramatic than postpartum depression symptoms. The Postpartum Psychosis Network writes that these can include:
- “Strange beliefs that could not be true (delusions)
- Hearing, seeing, feeling, or smelling things that are not there (hallucinations)
- High mood with loss of touch with reality (mania)
- Severe confusion
- Feeling that things are connected in special ways or that stories on the TV or radio have special personal meaning
- Feeling that the baby is connected to God or the Devil in some way”
The illness can get worse very quickly and should always be treated as a medical emergency. Most women are treated with medication and, in some cases, can be admitted to hospital.
When To See a Doctor About Postpartum Depression
Mothers and fathers may be reluctant or embarrassed to admit that he or she is feeling depressed – or worse – after a baby’s birth. However, the Mayo Clinic urges patients to contact their doctor when symptoms:
- “Don’t fade after two weeks
- Are getting worse
- Make it hard for you to care for your baby
- Make it hard to complete everyday tasks”
If experiencing any of these symptoms, moms and dads should schedule an appointment with a doctor or a mental healthcare provider as soon as possible.
Additionally, if these symptoms turn to thoughts of suicide or harm to the baby, you should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or use its webchat on suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat.
The Mayo Clinic reminds us that “any new mom can experience postpartum depression and it can develop after the birth of any child, not just the first.” You are at greater risk, however, if you have a history of depression or other mental health issues, and if left untreated, PPD can hinder the critical bonding between mother and baby.
The most important step is to be open about your mental health history during your pregnancy by monitoring and sharing any symptoms of depression before and after childbirth.