Postpartum Depression: More than the “Baby Blues”

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Gerald F. Joseph, Jr, MD

By Gerald F. Joseph, Jr, MD, President, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

The joys of pregnancy and motherhood can be short-lived—or non-existent—for women with postpartumdepression. An estimated 10 percent of new mothers struggle with this disorder that can be devastating for the mother, her infant, partner, and family.

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Mood changes after pregnancy—which may be caused by fluctuations in a woman’s hormone levels following delivery—are extremely common. As many as 80 percent of new mothers experience “baby blues” after childbirth. Within two to three days after delivery, many women with baby blues report feeling depressed, anxious, upset, or angry (with the new baby or others around them). They may cry for no clear reason; have trouble sleeping, eating, and making choices; or question whether they will be able to care for the baby. These feelings often go away on their own within a week or so.

With postpartum depression, however, the negative feelings don’t resolve and can develop into a depressive disorder that interferes with the mother’s ability to function normally. The symptoms, which typically surface between one and three weeks after delivery, are more severe than the baby blues and may include:

  • Strong feelings of depression or anger, months after childbirth
  • Increasing feelings of sadness, doubt, guilt, or helplessness that affect daily activities
  • Changes in appetite
  • Inability to care for oneself or baby
  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Fears of harming the baby
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide

Women who have previously had postpartum depression or a psychiatric illness, lack emotional support at home, or have experienced a stressful event such as recently losing a loved one may have a higher risk of developing postpartum depression. Further complicating matters is that new mothers often can’t bring themselves to admit that they are having problems or negative emotions. Instead of asking for help, they may feel guilty for not being “grateful” or “good” mothers.

If you’re a new mom, remember to give yourself a break and realize that there’s no such thing as a perfect baby or a perfect mother.

Motherhood—just like most other things in life—is not always instinctive and most women need to learn how to do it well.

If you think you might be experiencing postpartum depression or fear that you may hurt or neglect your baby or yourself, talk to your doctor. He or she can refer you to experts in treating depression who can provide support and help you work through your feelings. Talking to your partner or a friend you trust may also help relieve stress. Ask for help from family and friends if you are feeling overwhelmed. Get plenty of rest and take special care of yourself.


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