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Understanding Postpartum Depression

Visiting my mother this past holiday season, I learned that I was a victim of postpartum depression. At dinner one evening, my mother announced that after delivering me, she couldn’t “stand to look at me” and went to bed for several months leaving my three-year-old brother and myself in the care of a “baby nurse.”  

At first I was stunned and felt sorry for myself. And then I started feeling sad for my mom who really has been depressed her entire adult life and never received the treatment she deserved. It also explained why in all my 55 years, I really never felt attached to my mother, which is typical of children born to women who experience postpartum depression.  Fifty-five years ago, seeking psychiatric care was frowned upon. Currently, we now understand that postpartum depression is indeed a psychiatric problem that can be prevented, diagnosed and treated with much success.

How can a “blessed event” cause depression? Most new mothers experience the "baby blues" a few days after delivery. This is caused by a complex mix of physical, emotional and behavioral changes that occur after the birth of a new baby. Typically, this feeling of “sadness” goes away after a week or two. If symptoms of depression continue for at least four weeks after delivery, and start to get worse, clinically, it is called “postpartum depression.” About one out of every 10 mothers will develop postpartum depression. Left undiagnosed and treated, one in 1,000 women can develop a more serious condition called postpartum psychosis.

After delivery, there is a rapid drop in hormones which is suspected to contribute to postpartum depression.  In addition to these chemical changes, new moms are adjusting physically, mentally and emotionally to the challenges of having a new baby. In fact, there are several factors that increase the risk of having postpartum depression including:

  • History of depression before and/or during pregnancy
  • Ambivalence about the pregnancy
  • Multiple pregnancies: The more children you have, the more likely you are to be depressed in a subsequent pregnancy
  • Limited social support
  • Marital conflict
  • Poor nutrition
  • Lack of adequate sleep

The “baby blues” cause many new moms to feel a mild sense of sadness, despair, anxiety, and irritability, but with postpartum depression, most moms feel these same symptoms only much more strongly and for a longer period of time. If a new mother is unable to function, doing the things she needs to do every day then she needs to seek treatment from her health care provider.
If a woman does not get treatment, symptoms may get worse and actually jeopardize both the health of mother and baby.  With postpartum depression, women frequently have extreme mood swings; loss of pleasure; feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and helplessness; and thoughts of death or suicide. While this is a serious condition, it can be prevented and treated with medication, counseling and lifestyle changes.  
Here are some tips on preventing and/or coping with postpartum depression:

  • Recognize symptoms and ask for help
  • Be realistic about expectations for yourself and your baby
  • Try to exercise moderately every day. Take a walk with the baby to get some fresh air and look for “Shape Up with Baby” exercise programs in your area.
  • Seek out other new moms for support.
  • Eat a sensible diet making sure to consume lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Avoid “starving” yourself. Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day, especially if you are breastfeeding.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine intake
  • Keep the home fires burning between you and your partner - Communicate your feelings and let your partner help with chores and caring for other children
  • Screen phone calls and limit visitors when you first go home.
  • Try to get as much rest as possible. Ask well-meaning friends and relatives to help with the cooking, cleaning and running errands.
  • Spend quality time with your baby. Every time you feed your baby, stay present and just observe your baby. Be mindful of the miracle that came into your life!

If symptoms persist or even get worse, then treatment options include medication, psychotherapy and participation in a support group with other new moms.  In the case of postpartum psychosis, hospitalization may be necessary.

Attaching with your baby in the early days after delivery is an important part of the bonding experience and contributes to the mental health of both mother and child. As I write this article, I hope that moms everywhere will do everything they can to prevent postpartum depression as well as get the help they need if they are already experiencing symptoms.  

There is no reason a child has to go through childhood with a depressed mother as I did. So, be sure to seek professional help if you are experiencing the “baby blues” for more than two weeks, unable to function normally, can’t cope with everyday situations, and/or have thoughts of harming yourself or your baby.  You owe it to yourself and your growing family.


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