Disclaimer: the following is not intended to be taken as health advice and is for informational purposes only. Please consult with your own healthcare provider for any symptoms you may be experiencing.
When I had my first child four years ago, the last thing I expected was to suffer from postpartum depression (PPD). I knew my family history of depression and anxiety increased my risk for developing PPD, yet I still thought it wouldn’t happen to me. But shifting hormones and sleep deprivation took a toll on my mental health during a time when I expected to feel happy. After reaching out to my doctor for help, I was able to treat my depression and get better, and in the years since I’ve learned PPD is nothing to be ashamed about.
Most moms experience “baby blues,” or feelings of sadness in the days or weeks after giving birth, but PPD is a more severe and persistent condition that can affect many areas of your life. It can be hard to distinguish between what might be normal hormonal fluctuations after having a baby (and the mood swings that come with them) and what might be signs of a mental illness that you need professional help managing. Learn more about the key differences of postpartum depression vs. the baby blues and how to take care of your mental health after having a baby.
What is Postpartum Depression?
Postpartum depression (PPD) is a mood disorder characterized by feelings of sadness and irritability. The term “postpartum” refers to the time period after childbirth, though postpartum depression can begin during pregnancy or anytime in the year after giving birth.
There isn’t one distinct cause of postpartum depression, but physical changes during and after pregnancy are thought to play a role. A dramatic drop in the hormones estrogen and progesterone after childbirth can impact your mood and serotonin levels. These changes are of course exacerbated by the broken or inadequate sleep many parents get with a newborn, which can also affect your emotional stability.
Postpartum depression can happen to anyone, but your risk may be increased if:
- You have a history of depression either during pregnancy or at another point in your life.
- You have a family history of depression or anxiety.
- You’ve experienced stressful events in the last year like job loss, financial strain, pregnancy complications, or a baby with health problems.
- You experience difficulty breastfeeding.
- You don’t have a strong support system of family members or friends.
- You have a strained relationship with your partner.
Postpartum depression differs from another rare and life-threatening condition called postpartum psychosis, which occurs in about 1 to 2 of every 1,000 deliveries. Symptoms of postpartum psychosis include paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, and difficulty concentrating. Postpartum psychosis is a medical emergency, and you should seek immediate medical attention if you experience these symptoms. The condition is treatable with professional help.
Signs of Postpartum Depression
It’s not unusual to feel stressed after the birth of a baby, but if you’re experiencing persistent feelings of overwhelm and hopelessness, you may be struggling with PPD. Other signs of postpartum depression include:
- Difficulty bonding with your baby
- Loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
- Changes in appetite
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Mood swings
- Feelings of shame or guilt
- Difficulty concentrating
- Thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby
- Suicidal thoughts
If left untreated, PPD can persist for years and become chronic depression. But the condition is very treatable and many moms respond well to talk therapy and antidepressants. With proper treatment, most moms recover in about six months, but each individual case is unique and there isn’t a concrete timeline for everyone.
What are the Baby Blues?
When you talk about postpartum depression vs. baby blues, the “baby blues” refers to a period of emotional sensitivity and weepiness many new moms experience in the days after giving birth. The major key is that baby blues only tend to last for about the first two weeks after giving birth, while postpartum depression typically doesn’t begin until several weeks after birth.
The symptoms of the baby blues are similar to postpartum depression and include:
- Mood swings
- Feelings of overwhelm
- Mood swings
The baby blues typically occur within the first two to three days after childbirth and can last up to two weeks. The sudden change in hormones after delivery in addition to fatigue and stress can contribute to the baby blues and leave you feeling more tearful and emotionally fragile than usual.
How to Distinguish Between Postpartum Depression vs. the Baby Blues
PPD may seem like the baby blues at first, but the biggest difference between the two is how long the symptoms last. The baby blues should resolve in about two weeks, but postpartum depression can linger for months or even years without adequate treatment. Untreated PPD can also interfere with your ability to do daily tasks, care for your baby or yourself, or cause you to withdraw from friends and family.
If you’ve been experiencing symptoms of PPD for longer than two weeks, you should consult with your primary care provider, OB, or another health care professional. If you have thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, seek immediate medical attention or call a suicide hotline. You can reach the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or you can chat with a mental health professional online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat.
If you think you may be suffering from PPD, your doctor will do a depression screening with you, which typically includes filling out a postpartum depression quiz about your mood in the past week. Your doctor can discuss treatment options with you, like counseling or medication.
How to Help Someone with Postpartum Depression
Suffering from postpartum depression can feel very isolating, and if you love someone who is going through it, you might not know what to do. When I was at my lowest point with PPD, I needed the people around me to validate my feelings and affirm that I have the right to take care of myself. You can support a new mom with PPD by helping out with the baby so she can rest or just spend some time alone. Show up with food, take older siblings out for ice cream, do what you can to alleviate some of the pressure and stress she’s feeling.
If you love someone who you think may be experiencing PPD, encourage her to seek help. You can even offer to go to the doctor with her if that’s something she’s open to.
Know You’re Not Alone
If you are the one with postpartum depression, you need to know that postpartum depression is nothing to feel ashamed or embarrassed about. In fact, postpartum mood disorders are a common complication of childbirth, affecting as many as 10 to 15 percent of moms every year.
Having a baby is a huge life change and all the adjustments that come with it can be hard for anyone. Taking care of yourself is the best thing you can do for your children, and adequate treatment for PPD can help you manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is PPD curable?
PPD is very treatable, though treatment and recovery time vary depending on your individual circumstance and the severity of your depression. You can discuss treatment options with your doctor including counseling, medication, or attending support groups. With adequate and timely treatment, postpartum depression symptoms usually improve within a few months.
How common is PPD?
It’s more common than you think. Postpartum depression affects as many as 1 in 5 women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and is one of the most common complications of childbirth. Anyone can get PPD, but you may be at an increased risk if you’ve struggled with depression in the past or you have a family history of depression and anxiety.
Is it safe to take antidepressants while pregnant?
For the most part, yes, though it depends on the medication. There’s always an element of risk when taking any kind of medication during pregnancy, but a common type of antidepressant medication, known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), has not been linked to an increase in birth defects and are generally considered a good option during pregnancy. While there may be some risks with antidepressants, not treating depression during pregnancy also comes with risks, so it’s important to discuss your options with your doctor and determine the best course of treatment for you.
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Reviewed by Chaunie Brusie, RN, BSN…