About postpartum depression
Women are especially vulnerable to depression in the period immediately following childbirth. By some estimates, up to 80% of women experience a phenomenon called “postpartum blues,” characterized by extreme sensitivity, moodiness and sleep problems. In most cases, this problem resolves itself within one to two weeks of giving birth without requiring treatment.
For as many as 15% of new mothers, however, the problem begins within a few days of giving birth, and continues and grows worse for weeks or months. In rare cases, postpartum depression can progress to the point where a woman develops confused and disorganized thinking, or even hallucinations about herself or her child, possibly to the point of contemplating suicide or infant homicide. The catastrophic potential of this illness underscores the urgency of speaking with a healthcare professional immediately if you are experiencing any of the symptoms of depression after childbirth.
What causes postpartum depression?
Postpartum depression, unlike postpartum “blues,” seems to be driven at least in part by the rapid change in hormone levels, which make women more susceptible to depression. Other risk factors include:
- A personal or family history of depression
- The psychological challenge of parenting an infant
- The physical stress of the birth
- Lack of sleep
Who is most vulnerable to postpartum depression?
- Women with a personal or family history of depression are at the greatest risk.
- In about half of all cases, women who have experienced postpartum depression with previous births will have a recurrence in a subsequent delivery.
- Single women and women in unsupportive relationships may also be more susceptible, as may women with multiple children.
How is postpartum depression treated?
Depression is treatable. In fact, addressing the symptoms of depression is just as important as treating any other health concern impacting a new mother.
Antidepressant medications are an important treatment option for women who are moderately to severely depressed. Research has demonstrated that many of the most effective and well-tolerated antidepressant medications are safe for use during breast feeding. Read more about antidepressants here, then talk with your healthcare provider about whether an antidepressant might be right for you.
Herbal remedies, dietary supplements and alternative medicine
Unfortunately, very little scientific evidence supports alternative treatments for depression, and because these remedies are not regulated, there is no standardized information about ingredients or dosing instructions. Some supplements or remedies may have a negative interaction with antidepressants or other medications you may be taking. Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider before taking any herbal or dietary supplements.
Either alone or in combination with medications, psychotherapy, sometimes called “talk therapy,” has been shown to be effective in helping patients manage the symptoms of depressive illnesses. Two approaches, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) are particularly effective in the treatment of depression. If you’ve been diagnosed with depression, discuss these treatment options with your healthcare provider.
In addition to pursuing medication and psychotherapy as strategies to treat your depression after childbirth, you can take a number of actions on your own to help manage your symptoms and feel better. The Take Care of Yourself section of this website contains useful information about incorporating the following self-care strategies into your treatment plan:
New mothers commonly feel fatigued and overwhelmed, whether or not they are depressed. A good support system is important when you have a new baby, including finding help with housekeeping, meals and other daily tasks. Don’t feel you have to do it all yourself.
For improving both physical health and mood, there’s no substitute for physical activity. Most experts suggest striving for 30 minutes of physical activity, three times a week, but as little as 10 minutes a day has been shown to be beneficial. Happily for new moms, the activity doesn’t have to be strenuous to make a difference. A brisk walk is all it takes.
Adjusting to the changes that come with a new baby can bring on stress, and stress can make depression’s symptoms worse. Some of the stressors of particular concern to postpartum women are marital difficulties, the needs of other children in the household, poor overall health, alcohol or drug use, and limited social support.
Another potential source of stress: the high expectations new mothers place on themselves. The demands of motherhood can seem overwhelming, especially when you’re feeling fatigued and possibly depressed. Feeling better takes time; set realistic expectations about what you can accomplish, give yourself time to rest and relax, and make it a priority to participate in activities you enjoy. Read more about stress and stress-relievers here, and talk to your healthcare provider about establishing a plan to keep stress in check.
Getting enough good quality sleep is important for promoting good physical health after childbirth and is essential for managing the symptoms of depression. Unfortunately, new mothers are often sleep-deprived due to the around-the-clock demands of a newborn. Take time to learn about establishing good sleep habits, and make sleep a priority.
Sound nutrition is important for both the demands of motherhood and for managing your depression. In addition to the nutrition advice available on this website, which is focused on controlling the symptoms of depression, your healthcare provider may make specific recommendations about foods to eat or avoid, as well as vitamin and mineral supplements to take postpartum.
More information about depression in women at different life stages: