Signs & Treatment of Postpartum Depression
And why you shouldn’t just try to cope with it alone.
You may have heard of the term “baby blues”—feeling weepy, sad, lonely, tired, stressed, or even anxious. Although those emotions are common after childbirth, that doesn’t make them any less difficult to deal with. However, for many women, something more serious may be going on that can severely impact their quality of life: postpartum depression. Almost one in eight new moms experience postpartum depression—and others experience it alongside postpartum anxiety and pregnancy brain. Still, there’s a tendency for people to group any perinatal mental health issue arising during pregnancy or in your baby’s first year into a catchall under “postpartum depression.”
But how do you tell the difference between baby blues, postpartum depression, and postpartum anxiety? Keep reading to find out. We’re sharing postpartum depression symptoms, postpartum depression causes, and postpartum depression treatments, as well as when and how to contact a doctor. Just remember: You are not alone—help is out there.
What Is Postpartum Depression?
Postpartum depression (or PPD) is a persistent, intense emotional state that, quite frankly, sends your mood into the dumps around the time of your baby’s birth. PPD first gained notoriety in the medical community in the 1970s, and it can become so severe that it interferes with your childcare and self-care. It doesn’t discriminate either, affecting first-time moms and experienced ones, those whose pregnancy went smoothly or a little rough, despite being married or single, regardless of your age, race, culture, education, or how much money you have in the bank. Though the birth of your baby can trigger many emotions, postpartum depression is different. If left untreated, it can significantly impact your and your infant’s life. Most importantly, keep in mind that PPD isn’t a character flaw or sign of weakness. It’s a side effect of pregnancy, which can be helped.
When Does Postpartum Depression Start?
The vast majority of moms get a case of the baby blues when their little one arrives, which starts within the first few days of delivery. But they tend to recover from them in a couple weeks. Postpartum depression, on the other hand, can drag you down prior to or days, months, or a year after childbirth, even appearing seemingly out of nowhere and in no direct relation to giving birth. And it isn’t fleeting—especially if it goes untreated. That’s why it’s of the utmost importance to tell your doctor about it as soon as you start to notice any postpartum depression symptoms, even before your first post-pregnancy checkup if needed.
What Are The Symptoms of Postpartum Depression?
First, to help differentiate between perinatal mental health issues, let’s discuss what baby blues usually entail. You may feel sad, irritable, anxious, or have mood swings. It’s also common to feel overwhelmed, a lack of focus, like your appetite is off, and/or you have trouble sleeping. Though all of these things can be unpleasant, you should still be able to go about your day to day caring for your baby and daily tasks.
Postpartum depression symptoms dial the volume way up on all that, leading to depression, a short fuse, severe mood swings, hopelessness, guilt, shame, or feeling inadequate or worthless. You may cry a lot, withdraw from your family and friends, lose interest or pleasure in some of your favorite things, have insomnia or oversleep, eat too much or too little, or become extremely restless or overwhelmed with fatigue. PPD can also play awful mind tricks, causing you to doubt your capabilities as a mother, fear that you’re a bad mom, have trouble bonding with your baby, or become consumed with thoughts of harming yourself or your little one. On top of everything, you may experience severe anxiety and panic attacks. And it’s normal to feel more than one of these symptoms fluctuating in varying degrees. All this can lead you to then feel isolated and like you’re on your own in the world—which is exactly why it’s so important to seek professional medical help right away.
We should note that if you also feel confused and disoriented, obsessively think about your baby, have excessive energy or agitation, or feel as though you or your baby are in danger, you could be experiencing another perinatal mental health issue: postpartum psychosis. If you suspect this is the case, don’t wait a moment more and get immediate help via 911 or an emergency room, since it can be a life-threatening situation.
What Is The Difference Between Postpartum Depression & Postpartum Anxiety?
The exact relationship between postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety is still a bit of a mystery. Some symptoms overlap the two conditions, however, women with postpartum depression can have postpartum anxiety, but someone with postpartum anxiety isn’t necessarily depressed.
While postpartum depression symptoms can mirror depressive states that occur during other times in one’s life, postpartum anxiety is characterized by constant, excessive worrying, restlessness, and stress in the period of time following childbirth. Often, this excessive worrying and stress are centered around the health and safety of your newborn baby, but these emotions can also interfere with parts of your daily life, and may include self-doubt—which can lead to compulsive behaviors out of the norm of your typical personality. Fortunately, there are many remedies for postpartum anxiety, so never hesitate to talk to your doctor about what you’re feeling and what options are available that can help.
What Causes Postpartum Depression?
As discussed, postpartum depression can affect any new mom, regardless of their background. However, some women may be at more risk of developing it. If you or anyone in your family had depression or other mood disorders before, if you lack a personal support network, or if your life is currently unusually stressful, you may have a higher chance of developing postpartum depression.
Other potential postpartum depression causes are thought to be due to sudden changes in your pregnancy, stress, and thyroid hormones, which all have significant effects on your emotions. Physical changes during pregnancy, concerns about sleep or parenting, or even altered relationships at home or work may contribute to it. Plus, there’s the simple fact that mommying is hard. Sleep deprivation and the increased responsibility alone can be draining. It’s also common for confidence in your physical appearance to take a hit, or to feel like you’ve lost control over your life and/or identity.
How Is Postpartum Depression Diagnosed?
An assessment and postpartum depression diagnosis must be made by a qualified professional, who’ll begin with both a medical and psychiatric evaluation—the former to check for any underlying physical issues, like vitamin deficiencies or thyroid problems. They’ll also evaluate the level to which depression may be interfering with childcare or your daily activities, and if it’s worsening over time, as well as if you’ve had any thoughts about harming your baby or yourself.
Versions of these questions can be found among others within the screening tool most frequently used to diagnose PPD with and without postpartum anxiety, the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS). Available in almost every language, it entails 10 multiple choice questions that ask you to rate the severity of your symptoms. Other, less commonly used, tools are the 35-question Postpartum Depression Screening Scale (PDSS), though the EPDS is preferred, the 17-question Hamilton Depression Scale, and 21-question Beck Depression Inventory. (But both of the latter have not been validated among postpartum populations, only for general depression.)
How Can You Get Help For Postpartum Depression?
Above all, don’t hesitate to get help. Reach out to your doctor as soon as you notice persistent symptoms—the sooner you do, the sooner you can start feeling better. They can refer you to a mental health professional and point you in the right direction. And, hard as it may be, try to stay strong—postpartum depression impacts the quality of both your and your baby’s lives. Keep in mind that you’re doing the right thing.
Give voice to your feelings: It’s extremely common to feel embarrassed or ashamed about PPD, but remember, this is not your fault and there is nothing wrong with you—one out of eight perinatal women experience postpartum depression. Try to be as open and honest about your feelings as you can to your loved ones, doctor, and mental health professional.
If you’re still having trouble talking to someone you know out of (unnecessary) fear of judgment, call an organization like Postpartum Support International (PSI), the National Hopeline Network, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. There’s no need to suffer in silence. You can get better with help.
Ask for help: Don’t be afraid to ask for help caring for your infant—those who care for you would likely want nothing more than to take some weight off your shoulders.
Share among peers: There are also countless in-person and online support groups you can attend, which can help make you feel less isolated and alone. Sharing your feelings among people who understand what you’re going through can be especially cathartic too.
Try not to sweat the small stuff: As best you can, try to remind yourself that being a mommy is likely the hardest job you’ll ever have. So, try not to get caught up in less important responsibilities or unimportant tasks. It’s not the end of the world if the dishes sit in the sink a while longer or if your bed remains unmade.
Make a point to take “me time”: As moms, we often heap all of the home and childcare responsibilities onto ourselves, even when we work. Know that it’s OK—and encouraged—to take some time for yourself each day, even if it’s only for 15 minutes. Try to use this time to take some deep breaths and unwind a little, whether that be by taking a bath, reading, meditating, exercising, or even taking a stroll.
Go easy on yourself: There may be days where you feel like you can’t get enough done—or anything at all done. Don’t beat yourself up. Even if you can accomplish one thing in a day, celebrate that fact and be proud of yourself. There’s no need to be a supermom. Try to be realistic about what’s doable and what’s not, then ask for help where you need it most.
Be at peace with being overwhelmed: Parenting, by nature, is overwhelming—and accepting that fact can go a long way.
Keep a diary: Some of us are more into journaling than others, but getting your thoughts and frustrations out of your head and on paper can do wonders for your psyche. Then, once you seek postpartum depression treatment and are feeling a little better, go back and read what you wrote. You should be able to clearly see progress. Speaking of treatment . . .
How Do You Treat Postpartum Depression?
We can’t stress the importance of getting postpartum depression treatment enough. It affects you and your baby. If PPD starts while you’re still pregnant, it can lead to your baby being born early with a low birth-weight. And after you give birth, it can interfere with bonding with your little one, as well as their sleep and feeding schedules. Long-term, it puts your child at a higher risk for emotional, cognitive, developmental, verbal, and social issues. Plus, untreated PPD sets you up for dealing with depression even longer. But the good news is that postpartum depression is treatable, and there is a light at the end of the tunnel that will come all the faster if you beckon it with treatment.
As mentioned, spotting your symptoms and getting postpartum depression treatment early can help you nip it in the bud quicker. Talk to your doctor as soon as you can, or find a mental health professional with the American Psychological Association’s (APA) APA Psychologist Locator, or call 1-800-964-2000.
Treatment will generally involve counseling, like talk therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or psychotherapy, and mental health support, sometimes combined with postpartum depression medications (many antidepressants are safe to use while breastfeeding). During it, you’ll learn techniques for keeping negative feelings in check and healthy coping strategies.
And always, always remember: Having postpartum depression doesn’t mean you’re a bad mom, don’t love your baby, that you brought this on yourself, or did anything wrong. You’re also not going crazy or losing your mind. These are all common PPD mind tricks. Try your best not to let them fool you.
Will You Get Postpartum Depression After Every Baby?
Trust us, everything in us wants to reassure you on this one. But, since postpartum depression is a potential side effect of being pregnant and, if you’ve had depression before, you’re at a higher risk of it returning, there’s no guarantee that PPD won’t recur with the next baby you have. That said, there’s no guarantee that it will. Try not to let the possibility hold you back from building the family you’ve always wanted—that in itself isn’t ideal. And, now that you’re armed with knowledge of what postpartum depression is, along with its symptoms, what causes PPD, and how treatment can help, at the first sight (or, in this case, feeling) of any postpartum depression signs, you can start throwing yourself into getting the help you need. That way, even if it does come back, there’s a chance it will be for a shorter—and more manageable—duration.
Next: When you have postpartum depression, your emotions are amplified, making a crying baby all the more upsetting. Learn some tips on how to calm them down.