It’s not unusual for new moms to find themselves in of whirlwind of emotions after giving birth – experiencing everything from excitement and joy, to fear and anxiety. In fact, most women experience a brief period of mood swings, crying spells, anxiety and sleeplessness, often referred to as “baby blues,” for a few days post delivery, beginning within the first two or three days after birth and lasting up to two weeks. But what does it mean when those feelings are more severe and longer lasting?
When a new mother’s spirits don’t begin to lift after a couple of weeks, and her feelings of sadness deepen, it is known as postpartum depression (PPD), a condition that requires treatment.
How common is postpartum depression?
If you are feeling depressed after the birth of your baby, you may feel embarrassed and reluctant to say anything to anyone about it, but you need to know that having these feelings is not a character flaw or weakness. It doesn’t mean you are a bad person, or even a bad mother. Each year, it is estimated that an average of 15% of women who give birth experience postpartum depression – nearly 1 million women according to the CDC.
What causes postpartum depression?
There’s no single cause of postpartum depression, but physical and emotional issues may play a role.
• Physical changes. After childbirth, a dramatic drop in hormones (estrogen and progesterone) in your body may contribute to postpartum depression. Other hormones produced by your thyroid gland also may drop sharply – which can leave you feeling tired, sluggish and depressed.
• Emotional issues. When you’re sleep deprived and overwhelmed, you may have trouble handling even minor problems. You may be anxious about your ability to care for a newborn. You may feel less attractive, struggle with your sense of identity or feel that you’ve lost control over your life. Any of these issues can contribute to postpartum depression.
Symptoms of postpartum depression
Postpartum depression may be mistaken for baby blues at first – but the signs and symptoms are more intense and last longer, and may eventually interfere with your ability to care for your baby and handle other daily tasks. Symptoms usually develop within the first few weeks after giving birth, but may begin earlier – during pregnancy – or later – up to a year after birth.
According to the Mayo Clinic, PPD signs and symptoms may include:
• Depressed mood or severe mood swings
• Excessive crying
• Difficulty bonding with your baby
• Withdrawing from family and friends
• Loss of appetite or eating much more than usual
• Inability to sleep (insomnia) or sleeping too much
• Overwhelming fatigue or loss of energy
• Reduced interest and pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
• Intense irritability and anger
• Fear that you’re not a good mother
• Feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt or inadequacy
• Diminished ability to think clearly, concentrate or make decisions
• Severe anxiety and panic attacks
• Thoughts of harming yourself or your baby
• Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
Untreated, postpartum depression may last for many months or longer.
When should you see a doctor?
If you experience any symptoms of postpartum depression it is important to talk to someone about your feelings and call your doctor to schedule an appointment, especially if your feelings are characterized by the following:
• 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
• Include thoughts of harming yourself or your baby
Postpartum depression is serious. Many women delay treatment because they are afraid of what their family and friends will think. If at any point you have thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, immediately seek help from your partner or loved ones in taking care of your baby and call 911 or your local emergency assistance number to get help. Also consider the following sources of assistance if you’re having suicidal thoughts:
• Seek help from your primary care provider or other health care professional.
• Call a mental health professional.
• Call a suicide hotline. In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or use their webchat on suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat.
• Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
• Contact a minister, spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community.
The role family and friends can play
A new mom may not recognize or acknowledge that they’re depressed. They may not be aware of the signs and symptoms of depression and are probably feeling overwhelmed and alienated. If you suspect that a friend or loved one has postpartum depression, you can help by encouraging them to seek medical attention immediately. Don’t wait and hope for improvement.