Postpartum depression is something that a lot of women struggle with. It is normal for a new parent to suffer from some mood swings as they adapt to having a child and their bodies adapt to changing hormone levels after pregnancy.
In most cases, the feelings go away soon after the birth of the child, but some parents might experience a longer and more serious level of depression. When the feelings are sustained and serious, this is known as postpartum depression.1
Symptoms of Postpartum Depression
Postpartum depression is common, affecting more than ten percent of all women within the first year of them giving birth. Sometimes, the signs can be missed because the “baby blues” are a normal response to giving birth, and it is common for people to dismiss mood swings and tearfulness as simply being “the blues.”
Postpartum, or postnatal, depression is something that can hit at any time in the first year. Sometimes, it starts months after giving birth, and sometimes it hits sooner. The symptoms also last for longer than a couple of weeks.
Signs of postpartum depression include: 2
- Persistent sadness and low mood
- Loss of interest in the outside world
- Constant tiredness and lack of energy
- Difficulty sleeping at night
- Difficulty bonding with the baby
- Becoming withdrawn from family and friends
- Struggling to concentrate
- Intrusive thoughts
The symptoms can come on gradually, which makes it even harder for them to be diagnosed.
Who Is at Risk of Postpartum Depression?
Postpartum depression is something that anyone can develop, but there are some groups of individuals who are at greater risk of suffering from the condition: 3
- Those who have already had the condition following previous pregnancies
- Those who have had depression or bipolar disorder in the past
- People with a family history of depression
- Women who had complications during pregnancy or childbirth
- Women with a history of alcohol or drug abuse
- Individuals for whom the pregnancy was unplanned or unwanted
- Individuals who experience traumatic or stressful life events during the pregnancy or after childbirth
While individuals in the above groups are at greater risk of developing postpartum depression, it is something that can affect anyone, even those who had a planned, smooth pregnancy and are generally in good health.
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Postpartum depression does not mean that the woman is “unhappy” or that she does not want the baby. Rather, it is a medical condition that is thought to be caused by hormone imbalances following pregnancy.
There are many different hormones associated with the reproductive system, including estradiol and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). The levels of these hormones in the body vary during the menstrual cycle and pregnancy, and it is thought that they may become dysregulated in some women following childbirth, which is what triggers the depressive episodes.4
Treating Postpartum Depression
There are several different options available for the treatment of postpartum depression. Women who have mild depression may be offered counseling, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), or interpersonal therapy to help them learn coping strategies.
Those who have more serious depression or whose symptoms last for longer and do not respond to CBT or interpersonal therapy may be given pharmacological treatments. Most doctors would prefer to avoid this approach unless it is absolutely necessary because of concerns about infant exposure to the medication through breast milk.6
Postpartum depression does respond well to antidepressants, so such treatments are an option for women who are struggling to cope with using other strategies.7 Treatment is valuable because it can shorten the duration of the depressive episodes. Studies show that women who receive treatment for the condition typically recover within a year, while those who choose not to seek treatment may find that they are still experiencing symptoms after three years.8
Postpartum depression can affect the whole family. Having a new baby is challenging for everyone, even for those who are lucky enough to not experience postpartum depression. Interestingly, men can suffer from postpartum depression too, although in their case, the causes are different, and the depression may manifest itself in different ways.9 The upheaval, stress, and anxiety associated with having to care for a new baby can put a lot of strain on anyone.
If any member of the family is suffering from postpartum depression, it can be confusing for the other members of the family, especially other children who are struggling to understand why their parent seems to “not be themselves” since the birth of the new child. Taking the time to explain the condition in an age-appropriate way will help them understand. You may be surprised at how helpful older siblings can be if they are treated like adults.
If you have a support network of friends and family, then be sure to make use of them. Do not be shy about asking for help. Do not assume that having postpartum depression makes you a bad parent. Over the years, there have been some high-profile cases of women harming their children and trying to use postpartum depression as a defense. These media stories are simply using over-simplified headlines to get attention.10
Women with postpartum depression will not harm their children, and they are not bad mothers. This is a result of another condition called postpartum psychosis, which is far rarer than postpartum depression and far more serious in terms of the risk to the rest of the family. If you have postpartum depression all that means is that you are depressed. You are still you, and you still care about your family. Take care of yourself and seek help if you need it so that you can give them the love that you want to and that they deserve.
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