What Is Postpartum Depression?

Feeling blue after you’ve given birth is common — up to 80% of mothers experience mild feelings of sadness that can last a few weeks but go away on their own.

Postpartum depression, however, is a much more serious condition that occurs in 8-16% of births.

Dr. Judith Overton, medical director at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, explains postpartum depression, symptoms, risk factors and treatments.

What is postpartum depression?

Postpartum depression is a mood disorder that usually affects a woman within a few days after giving birth. Mothers with postpartum depression experience feelings of extreme sadness, anxiety and exhaustion that can make the activities of daily living difficult or impossible.

“Having a baby is supposed to be the happiest time in your life,” says Dr. Overton. “But if you’re crying and miserable and life feels hopeless, it’s easy to believe there’s something wrong with you as a mother, even though that couldn’t be further from the case.”

What are the symptoms of postpartum depression?

  • Feeling sad, empty or overwhelmed
  • Crying more often than usual or for no apparent reason
  • Feeling anxious, moody, irritable or restless
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Anger or rage
  • Lack of interest in activities
  • Withdrawing from or avoiding friends and family
  • Having trouble bonding or forming an emotional attachment to your baby
  • Doubting your ability to care for your baby
  • Thinking about harming yourself or your baby

What causes postpartum depression?

There is no single cause of postpartum depression, and the condition does not occur because of something a mother does or does not do. Experts believe it is likely a combination of:

  • Changes in hormone levels
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Physical discomfort
  • Exhaustion

What are the risk factors for postpartum depression?

People more likely to experience postpartum depression include those who have experienced:

  • Depression or bipolar disorder
  • A family member who has depression or other mental illness
  • A stressful life event
  • Medical complications during childbirth such as premature delivery
  • Mixed feelings about the pregnancy
  • A lack of strong emotional support from spouse, partner, family or friends
  • Misuse or abuse of alcohol or other drugs

“You’re also more likely to experience postpartum depression if, during pregnancy or delivery, you’ve been dealing with a stressful life event such as losing a job or getting divorced,” Dr. Overton says. “It can also happen more frequently with an unplanned pregnancy, if you’re a single parent or have childcare stress, or if you have a baby who is hardly sleeping, is colicky or feels inconsolable.”

How do you treat postpartum depression?

First, don’t ignore it.

While there is still some stigma around both postpartum depression and seeking mental health care, there is no shame in either.

Talking to a professional about your thoughts and feelings is the healthiest thing you can do, and your doctor is there to work with you to find a solution that’s right for you.

In the cast of postpartum depression, if it’s mild, Dr. Overton suggests trying therapy and activity.

“Getting some counseling and exercising or doing yoga can be helpful,” she says.

If it’s impacting your day-to-day functioning in a major way, however, medicine may be the best option.

“Antidepressants have been used to help reduce symptoms, and you can take them and continue to breast feed, so there is minimal risk to baby,” she says. “Consult your doctor for the best advice for your specific situation.”

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