Up to 70 percent of new mothers experience the "baby blues," which includes mood swings and crying spells. These symptoms are fairly common and generally fade within a few days following birth.
However, about 13 percent of new mothers experience a more severe, long-lasting depression, which is known as postpartum depression. These symptoms last longer (at least two weeks) and often interfere with the woman’s ability to care for the baby and for herself.
The symptoms of postpartum depression emerge within a month of giving birth. Symptoms include mood swings, increased irritability, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, energy loss and sometimes feelings of hopelessness and even thoughts about harming oneself or the newborn. If untreated, it can last for a year or longer, but when treated, it generally goes away within a few months.
It is uncertain what causes postpartum depression, although there are many contributing factors. We do know that there are physical changes following childbirth, including a drastic drop in hormone levels. This change in itself can leave a person feeling tired, sluggish and depressed.
Additionally, there are changes in a person's blood pressure, immune system and metabolism. These changes can further stress the body and contribute to mood swings and fatigue. Genetically, some women may be more predisposed toward developing postpartum depression.
Other factors that all increase after giving birth that could lead to the development of postpartum depression include stressful events such as financial problems, loss of a loved one, illness, pregnancy complications, moving to a new home, relational problems, lack of social support and sleep deprivation.
There are many women who experienced postpartum depression and live in a state of anxiety and hopelessness, without seeking help. Later, when asked why they never sought help, the No. 1 reason people cite is that they felt guilty about what they were feeling and experiencing. They had expected to feel happy and excited about being a new mother, and instead they felt depressed. As a result, people worry that they are a disappointment, failure or a bad mother.
In actuality, it is not the person who is the problem, but the depression that is affecting the person at that time. Overcoming depression allows women to be themselves again and to be the person and parent they want to be.
Treatment for postpartum depression usually includes medication and psychotherapy. Medications often prescribed are antidepressants and sometimes hormone replacement.
Therapy is a place for women to gain support, talk through their difficulties and solve problems. Therapy also provides education and encouragement for people to make healthy lifestyle choices, such as getting enough sleep, eating healthy, making time for themselves, spending quality time with the newborn and accepting help from family and friends rather than trying to do it all themselves.
If you think you or a loved one may be experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression, it is best to see a doctor right away. Early treatment can lessen the length and severity of the depression.
(Sara Horner is a licensed psychologist and has her doctorate from the California School of Professional Psychology. She works at Archway Mental Health Clinic at St. Alexius Medical Center in Bismarck.)