Hormone changes, stress, and exhaustion can cause a range of emotions following the birth of a baby. When these changes are combined with the lifestyle adjustment that goes along with adding a member to the family, new mothers are often overwhelmed, and most experience temporary feelings of sadness. Depression that lingers for longer than several weeks may be postpartum depression, a condition that is more worrisome than the typical “baby blues” associated with post-birth recovery.
Definition of Postpartum Depression
Postpartum depression is a prolonged period of moderate to severe depression that occurs after birth. It generally emerges within three months following birth, and treatment is often required to cure it.
Signs of Postpartum Depression
In the weeks following pregnancy, most women experience “baby blues,” a short period of time during which they feel depressed and emotional. This is usually a normal response to the variety of emotions — both happy and stressful — that occur after birth, and the hormonal changes associated with recovery. The biggest indicator that the sufferer has postpartum depression rather than baby blues is the duration of the depression. Baby blues generally does not last longer than one month, while postpartum depression typically persists until it is treated by a mental health professional. Feelings are generally more intense for sufferers of postpartum depression than sufferers of baby blues. Postpartum depression may also be identified by the sufferer’s inability or apparent unwillingness to bond with her baby, as this does not usually occur with baby blues.
Some women develop postpartum depression without any signs or risk factors, but women with past histories of depression are more likely to experience depression after birth. Stressful life events such as marital conflicts or financial troubles can trigger depression. Postpartum depression occurs more frequently following unplanned pregnancies than following planned pregnancies. In come cases, pre-existing conditions such as hyperthyroidism and bi-polar disorder can trigger postpartum depression, or the more severe postpartum psychosis.
Symptoms of Postpartum Depression
Symptoms of postpartum depression are both mental and physical. Sufferers may struggle to bond with their babies, and some may even resent their babies. Postpartum depression can cause intense, irrational worry about the well-being of the baby, and it can also cause the mother to be indifferent or neglectful toward the baby. The mother may show a lack of interest in activities she previously enjoyed. She may neglect her obligations at work and at home.
Additional symptoms include fatigue, anxiety, irritability, loss of appetite, and inability to concentrate.
Causes of Postpartum Depression
Several factors may cause postpartum depression. The condition is often the result of some combination of genetic predisposition, biological factors, lifestyle influences, difficulty adjusting to motherhood, and hormonal disruptions associated with birth. Most women go through a short period of moodiness, or baby blues, shortly after delivery. The triggers for baby blues and postpartum depression are often similar. Too many factors occurring at once, or extreme cases of any individual factor, may result in lingering depression.
Effects of Postpartum Depression
If left untreated, postpartum depression sometimes develops into a very dangerous condition called postpartum psychosis. Women who suffer from postpartum psychosis are at risk of harming themselves and those they are in contact with, including their babies.
Treatment for Postpartum Depression
Treatment for postpartum depression usually includes a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Antidepressants can alter the sufferer’s mood. Hormone therapies can help counteract the drop in estrogen following birth that may cause some cases of postpartum depression. Talk therapy in one-on-one or family sessions can help the mother learn to cope with some of the challenges associated with parenting.
With treatment, most cases of postpartum depression are cured within one year. Mothers who have been diagnosed with postpartum depression should take caution to watch for signs of depression in subsequent pregnancies. The condition may re-emerge following each additional pregnancy.
- Postpartum Depression. PubMed Health. Retrieved May 12, 2012, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0004481/
- Postpartum Depression. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved May 12, 2012, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/postpartum-depression/DS00546
By C. J. Newton, MA, Therapists.com Editor