Understanding postpartum depression

Depression during pregnancy and postpartum depression are two types of clinical depression that can afflict a mother-to-be or a new mother. The birth of a new baby is a life-changing experience. Many women experience anxiety and other troubling emotions immediately after they give birth, and this is perfectly normal. However, in some women, sadness, fear, anxiety persist to the point where they cannot function and cannot care for the new baby. If this is the case, the woman may be suffering from postpartum depression.

Not the Baby Blues

Experiencing “baby blues” after giving birth is a common experience. A woman may cry easily, feel anxious and irritable or have difficulty sleeping. It is even common for new mothers to have trouble making decisions and to wonder if they are capable of caring for a baby. It is when these feelings and emotions of being constantly depressed interfere with the ability to function and do not go away after a day or so that a diagnosis of clinical postpartum depression may be appropriate.

The signs and symptoms of postpartum depression may include any of the following.

  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Feelings of anger
  • Feelings of guilt or extreme doubts about the ability to be a good mother
  • Loss of appetite
  • Being unable to care for the baby or oneself
  • Fatigue, lethargy, inability to manage everyday tasks
  • Excessive concerns about the baby’s health or safety
  • Loss of interest in the new baby/not wanting to hold the baby
  • Not wanting to be alone with the baby or fear of hurting the baby
  • Inability to experience pleasure
  • Thoughts of suicide or hurting oneself

Postpartum depression is more common in women with a history of clinical depression. It is also more likely to occur if a woman has other stressors at the same time like the recent loss of loved one, an unemployed spouse or a recent move to a place where she does not know many people.

What Causes Postpartum Depression?

In women who are prone to depression, especially those who have suffered from depression during pregnancy, fluctuating hormones may, in part, explain why postpartum depression occurs. Levels of progesterone and estrogen drop sharply after delivery, and that may cause a woman who is very sensitive to shifting hormones to experience symptoms of depression. Combined with other factors, such as a history of depression or inadequate coping skills, postpartum depression is a real possibility.

Some new mothers feel a sense of loss after having a baby, and that can contribute to depression. They may feel as though they have lost their freedom, their youth or time with their partners. They may also find that myths about having the perfect baby or being the perfect mother are quickly shattered when the reality of caring for an infant sets in. It is important to recognize the signs of postpartum depression because, when recognized, it is a treatable condition.

How is Postpartum Depression Treated?

Treatment for postpartum depression is generally the same as treatment for any other type of depression such as depression during pregnancy. As with any type of depression, an effective treatment plan depends on the individual and her particular set of symptoms. In some cases, medication is helpful, though a woman who is breastfeeding may not be able to take certain prescription drugs. Another approach is counseling, which can help a new mother cope with her feelings about motherhood and her ability to meet new demands on her time and energy. Rest, nutrition and exercise are also helpful in alleviating some of the symptoms that may be associated with postpartum depression. Social outlets, such as support groups for new mothers, can be useful as well.

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