Arrival of a new baby is expected to a be joyful event. However, some mothers may find themselves struggling with a roller coaster of emotions that may range from joy and bliss to sudden mood swings and feeling depressed. These feelings of sadness are called baby blues.
Though these negative emotions may come as a shock, it is actually common among new mothers to go through minor depression, crying bouts for no apparent reason and a sense of hopelessness following childbirth. Small babies require a lot of attention and care, which can be overwhelming for new mothers. These symptoms are usually mild and are believed to affect approximately 50% to 75% of all mothers after childbirth. Baby blues symptoms tend to disappear on their own in a week or so after delivery.
However, in some cases, these symptoms continue to get worse and a woman may experience emotions that are overly distressing and last much longer than your typically mild baby blues. This is known as postpartum depression (PPD), a serious health issue that can interfere with a woman’s ability to do her daily chores including taking care of herself and her new-born.
According to National Institute of Mental Health, “post-partum condition occurs in nearly 15 percent of births, may begin shortly before or any time after childbirth, but commonly begins between a week and a month after delivery”.
Signs and symptoms of postpartum depression
Feeling a bit down and teary eyed in the first few days or weeks after delivery is very common. But if your emotions are stronger or if you experience some of the following symptoms for at least two consecutive weeks, you could have postpartum depression:
- Feeling extremely sad, depressed and hopeless most of the day
- Feeling overly worried, moody, tense and anxious
- Feeling angry and irritated
- Feeling distant and detached from family and friends
- A loss of interest in activities you normally used to enjoy
- A loss of interest in sex
- Eating too much or eating too little
- Unintentional and unexpected weight gain or weight loss
- Feeling excessive fatigue
- Crying bouts for no apparent reason
- Sleeping too much or sleeping too little, even when the baby is asleep
- Trouble concentrating and remembering details
- Trouble making decisions
- Experiencing physical aches and pains that were not present before
- Trouble bonding with the baby
- Excessive feelings of restlessness or sluggishness
- Feeling of guilt over not being able to take care of your new baby
- Thoughts of harming the baby or self
A woman may experience these strong, negative emotions a few days after childbirth. And sometimes these symptoms may even occur after a year. These symptoms may develop gradually, which makes it difficult to realize you are suffering from postpartum depression.
What causes postpartum depression?
Some women believe that they are responsible for experiencing these overpowering symptoms of depression, guilt and despair after childbirth. The fact is: PD doesn’t happen because of something that a mother does or doesn’t do. A number of hormonal, environmental, emotional and also genetic variables are at play, giving rise to symptoms of depression.
Changing hormonal levels
One of the most likely causes of postpartum depression is the fluctuating levels of hormones. After childbirth, the levels of estrogen and progesterone decline sharply, leading to unfavourable bio-chemical changes in the brain. Hormones are in tight control of your mood, emotions, social behavior and even sleep. Women with low levels of thyroid hormones are also more likely to experience depression.
In addition to this, most mothers don’t get enough rest and sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation, and constant fatigue from nursing and caring for a new baby combined with these hormonal changes all contribute to symptoms associated with postpartum depression.
Other risk factors for postpartum depression
- Personal history of depression or signs of depression you may have previously ignored
- Family history of depression and mental health problems
- A stressful event during pregnancy or immediately after child birth (for example, death of a loved one, separation from partner, financial stress, career problems etc.)
- Domestic violence
- Unhealthy relationship with spouse or partner
- Smoking, alcohol or drug abuse
- Unplanned pregnancy
- Being a mother of multiples (twins, triplets or more)
- Complications during pregnancy and birth
- Premature delivery
- Giving birth to a child with medical issues
- Mothers with babies in Neonatal Intensive Care (NICU)
- Little or lack of physical and emotional support from family, partner or friends
- Negative thoughts on being a mother
Some women are more prone to developing postpartum depression; however, even women with no history of depression, no traumatic experience during pregnancy or delivery or even those who give birth to normal, healthy children can experience mild to severe PPD. Basically, it can happen to any woman. Studies show that this condition is not limited to mothers. It can affect fathers or partners too.
How is postpartum depression treated?
If you think you or someone in your family is having these extreme symptoms, get in touch with a healthcare provider right away. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your healthcare practitioner may recommend regular counseling (also known as talk therapy) and/or antidepressant medications.
Antidepressants work by regulating brain chemicals responsible for mood and emotional well-being. Some of these medications are generally considered safe during breastfeeding but may have side effects like dry mouth and weight gain for the mother. Make sure you consult a healthcare expert about what treatment is right for you and your baby, possible risks involved and whether the benefits outweigh these potential risks.
Joining support groups also helps mothers to deal with their stress. It is a great way to connect with other parents going through similar situations.
While medical advice coupled with counseling, medications and support groups go a long way in helping women deal with postpartum depression, lifestyle changes can also help reduce stress and manage their symptoms. The following strategies can help mothers to be on track with their lives:
- Eating nutritious meals at regular intervals
- Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables; and cutting back on processed foods, sugar and salty snacks
- Getting proper rest and sleep
- Engaging in regular exercise
- Seeking support from family and friends
- Taking time off from baby duties
- Taking time out for yourself to engage in activities that make you happy. Try reading a book or listening to music.
What can happen if postpartum depression is left untreated?
It is already tough to be a new parent. The added burden of depression and mood swings can wreak further havoc on a woman’s physical, mental and emotional well-being, which also interferes in her ability to connect with and take care of her baby. The depression can even last for years if not treated well and in a timely manner.
These symptoms may also come in the way of healthy growth and development of your baby, who may:
- Find it difficult to bond with you
- Be slow in talking and achieving other important milestones
- Exhibit behavior issues
The good news is postpartum depression does have remedies. With timely diagnosis, the correct medical guidance and support from family and friends, recovery is not far away.
It is important for new mothers to remember that it is not your fault that you are depressed. It also doesn’t mean that you are not a good mother. Postpartum depression is just like any other illness that can be treated with medical advice, therapy and support. If you feel something is not right, don’t hesitate to seek help as son as possible. Without treatment, your depression can persist for months and even years.