Whether you’re a woman who’s given birth once, twice, three times or more, you’ve likely experienced an adjustment stage known as baby blues. Upwards of 80 percent of mothers experience this, where hormonal changes, physical recovery from birthing, and lack of sleep from tending to your new baby’s patterns create irritability, mood swings, weariness and frustration. Baby blues generally pass within two weeks as your mind, body and soul refuels. Time is a great healer, and soon your emotional and physical struggles diminish—and then recede altogether.
But for some moms, about 20 percent, this challenging experience doesn’t get better with time. In fact, it continues to linger and worsens, where symptoms become so intense that your find yourself completely overwhelmed. This experience is called Postpartum Depression (PPD) and is a serious mental health concern.
Postpartum Depression is a category of Major Depressive Disorder, which can occur four weeks after birth and up to one year post delivery. Postpartum Depression is sometimes called Postnatal Depression, Postpartum Depression with Anxiety and Maternal Depression. Science tells us that PPD often goes unrecognized because changes in sleep, appetite, attitude and behavior are attributed to normal pregnancy and postpartum changes by family, friends—even health professionals. So, the opportunity to “see” the illness is swayed by these beliefs. Then we have another issue, where many mothers feel shame when they can’t tend to their babies. They often suffer in silence—hoping things will get better. These mothers don’t realize they’re in the midst of a serious, but treatable illness. The combination of misdiagnosis and shame about needing help worsens the trajectory of the PPD and slows recovery. Given these circumstances, research reports that only about 50 percent of women with PPD are recognized and receive treatment.
I was a young psychologist when I had my first child. I was treated previously for depression and new that it was likely that I'd experience Postpartum Depression. I readied myself throughout my pregnancy. Upon delivery, I discovered that I wasn’t really prepared for how PPD immediately took hold. I felt not only overwhelmed by having a baby, my body was crushed by fatigue, and my mind swirled with doubts, guilt and worry. I felt extremely fragile, which was different from my previous depressive experiences.
I immediately began antidepressant therapy and within several weeks, I felt better. And then by about the 3rd month, I was back to my old self. Once I returned to work, I spent some time reflecting on how I was shamed considerably by several friends and family members for not being able to “cope” with my daughter—while others fiercely supported me. It was a most unique experience to view this as both a clinician who treated others with PPD and experiencing it personally.
Symptoms of Postpartum Depression
Postpartum Depression can present in physical, emotional and cognitive ways. Here's a list of some of the symptoms.
Afraid to be left alone with your baby Anxiety, feelings of dread and worry
Difficulty remembering things Feeling disconnected from others
Feeling overwhelmed Frequent crying, about little things
Guilt about not being able to cope Helplessness and hopelessness
Irritability, agitation Looping of unwanted thoughts
Loss of energy, fatigue Loss of interest in self-care
Loss of interest in doing things Not capable of caring for your baby
Not feeling up to doing tasks Panic, shortness of breath
Persistent sadness Poor concentration/indecisiveness
Recurrent thoughts of death/suicide Significant appetite changes
Sleeping difficulties Worried about your future
What Causes Postpartum Depression?
Research reports that there doesn’t appear to be one single cause, but rather a variety of factors that contribute to PPD. The important thing to know is that Postpartum Depression is not a result of being weak, lazy or inadequate as a mother. It is a real illness.
Much has been done over the last few years to study evidenced based methods to help mothers gain recovery. For Postpartum Depression, the treatments of choice include antidepressant medications and psychotherapy. In addition, holistic treatments can bolster traditional treatments, many of which I recommend.
Postpartum Depression affects about 20% of new moms. Early identification, evidence based treatments and holistic supports can minimize the impact of this serious, but treatable mood disorder. I know many moms out there reading this will feel worried their symptoms won’t ever go away, or they may not bond with their babies, or that worse things will loom in the distance. But as a clinician who’s spent over 25 years treating women with PPD, I know that treatment works and recovery comes.
And as a mom, myself, who’s gone through Postpartum Depression, knowing its darkness, its crushing chaos, the numbing detachment and feelings of inadequacy, it will end.
And you will bond with your baby.
And you will feel better.
Dr. Deborah Serani is a psychologist, professor and author of the award-winning books "Living with Depression," "Depression and Your Child: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers," and “Depression in Later Life."