For many women, childbirth is the most meaningful moment of their lives. But at a time when a mother is supposed be filled with joy and love, some women may experience feelings of anxiety, fear, guilt or depression. Although it is not known exactly how many women suffer from depression, it is widely viewed as the most common complication of childbirth.
Postpartum Depression and the "Baby Blues"
The "baby blues", which occurs when a woman experiences signs of depression after childbirth, is viewed as a common effect of pregnancy. In fact, anywhere between 50-80% of women report feeling sad, anxious, weepy or generally emotionally unstable before or after the birth of their baby. Fluctuating levels of the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone is responsible for this.
During pregnancy the levels of these hormones increase dramatically. Therefore, after pregnancy, as the hormones return to their normal amounts, women may become susceptible to depression or mood disorders – just as our moods may be affected during PMS for the same reason. In fact, the baby blues may be marked by some of the same symptoms of postpartum; however, its duration is much shorter. The baby blues generally peaks 3-5 days after childbirth and will endure no longer than two weeks.
Postpartum (which literally means "after-birth") depression (PPD), on the other hand, affects about 10-20% of new mothers and can begin anytime within the first year after childbirth. As of yet it is unknown how long postpartum depression can endure. The level of severity, environment as well as overall mental health may influence how long the symptoms will last.
Postpartum psychosis, which is a much more severe and dangerous form of postpartum depression is extremely rare and only affects about 3 women in every 1000. Signs of postpartum psychosis usually occur within the first few weeks postpartum.
In some cases childbirth may result in low thyroid levels, which may also be a cause of depression. There is a standard blood test than can be done to determine whether this is the case; and if it is, there are medications that can alleviate the symptoms.
What are the Signs of Postpartum Depression?If any of the following symptoms endure for more than two weeks after childbirth, women should seek medical attention:
- Feelings of anxiety, guilt, sadness, worthlessness, restlessness or irritability
- Sleep disturbances
- Lack of interest in social or other activities you previously enjoyed
- Lack of feeling or feelings of resentment, anger or fear about motherhood, your partner or your child
- Trouble focusing
- Eating more or less than usual
- Unexplained, uncontrollable weeping
- Headaches, chest pains of other physical symptoms with no other apparent reason
In some cases, mothers may also contemplate suicide or even fantasize about harming their children as well as themselves. Unlike those suffering from postpartum psychosis, women experiencing postpartum depression are highly unlikely to commit such acts.
Who is at Risk?Although there is no certain cause of postpartum depression, there are known risk factors for acquiring ppd. If you have experienced any of the following, you and your family should be extra vigilant in monitoring your mood levels during and after pregnancy:
- Previous incident of postpartum depression (this puts you at a 50-80% greater risk).
- Family history of depression or being treated for depression before pregnancy. A family history of bipolar disorder or psychosis also puts you at a greater risk for developing postpartum psychosis.
- Social isolation, lack of support or a life changing event such as divorce, death or loss of employment.
- Difficult pregnancy that caused disruption to normal routine (for example, being bedridden).
- Having a history of severe PMS or PMDD.
- History of thyroid problems
What are the Treatment Options?For those suffering from postpartum depression, medical treatment options will most likely include:
- Psychiatric evaluation and/or individual or group therapy
- Antidepressants or other medications. Some doctors may recommend a mother take antidepressants for more severe symptoms of ppd, however, women should understand the risks involved in taking such medications if she is pregnant or breastfeeding.
Although it is recommended that women experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression seek medical attention, some alternative treatments include:
- A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Recent studies have shown that these polyunsaturated fatty acids may be an effective treatment for those suffering from a range of depression related mood disorders.
- Some naturopaths suggest that certain blood tests may detect postpartum depression before its symptoms have been manifested. They suggest that women experiencing poor circulation, dizziness, unusual bleeding or clotting during their period or pale complexion be tested for blood deficiencies. Treatment options include acupuncture, herbal supplements and dietary or lifestyle changes.
Is there Anything I can do to Prevent PPD?Here are a few suggestions on how you and your loved ones can help to prevent the onset or escalation of ppd-related symptoms:
Surround yourself with family, friends, loved ones. Talk to your loved ones about how you’re feeling and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you do not feel able to perform your daily tasks – you don’t have to be super-mom!
Attend a moms-only support group. Many women report that being surrounded by other mothers was immensely successful in curbing their symptoms of depression. Because the baby blues are so common, this is a great opportunity for mothers to share their experiences and know they’re not alone.
Don’t expect too much from yourself. Becoming a mother, especially when it’s for the first time, can be extremely stressful. Don’t push yourself and set reasonable limits for what you are able to achieve.
Take care of yourself! Be sure to make time for yourself and make your own well-being a priority. Getting out of the house for a little while each day (without your child!) may help you to keep your focus and regain composure.