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What Is Postpartum Depression?

New parents have a lot to prepare for when awaiting their baby’s arrival. There’s a great deal to consider, from the important things like choosing a name to figuring out where the baby’s room should be or if parents should go with traditional colors or neutral hues for the baby’s clothes.

There are all kinds of things to think about, but one thing that likely isn’t on the list of things to consider is guidance on what to do if a new mom finds herself coping with postpartum depression (PPD), a condition that affects thousands of women who have given birth. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that PPD is more intense than what’s known as the “baby blues,” a period in which women experience worry, sadness, and tiredness after their child is born. Baby blues symptoms generally fade after a few days, but PPD lasts longer and is more intense.

WebMD defines postpartum depression as a type of depression a new mother may have after she gives birth. “It can start any time during your baby’s first year, but it’s most common for you to start to feel its effects during the first three weeks after birth,” WebMD writes.

The health site advises that if a new mother notices that her low mood has not changed in more than two weeks, then her baby blues could be more severe than thought.

This mood disorder affects up to 1 in 7 women, according to the American Psychological Association, and any woman can experience it, the APA says. This includes women with easy pregnancies and those with problem pregnancies as well as first-time moms and those who have more than one child.

What Are the Symptoms of Postpartum Depression?

It’s essential to know what to look for to determine if you or someone you know has PPD. Symptoms can be physical, emotional, or behavioral, as the site PostpartumDepression.com explains.

Physical signs of PPD include:

  • Body aches, pains
  • Appetite changes
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Problems with learning, recalling information

Emotional signs of PPD include:

  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness
  • Feeling overwhelmed or numb
  • Crying spells, sometimes for no reason 
  • Anger, rage
  • Thoughts of harming oneself or the baby
  • Doubts about one’s ability to care for the infant
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Moodiness

Behavioral signs of PPD include:

  • Increasingly isolating oneself from others
  • Loss of interest in everyday activities, including sex, self-care, and hobbies
  • Struggling to bond with the baby or feeling an emotional connection to the infant

If postpartum depression is left untreated, it can linger for months, writes the Mayo Clinic, which also mentions a rare condition called postpartum psychosis. It usually develops within the first week or two after delivery.

Signs of postpartum psychosis include:

  • Confusion, disorientation
  • Obsessive thoughts about the baby
  • Excessive agitation, restlessness
  • Paranoia
  • Attempts to harm the baby or oneself
  • Rapid mood swings
  • Hallucinations
  • Reckless behavior

The Office on Women’s Health (OWH) writes that postpartum psychosis is a medical emergency. Women who have bipolar disorder or schizoaffective disorder are at higher risk of having postpartum psychosis, it writes.

“Postpartum psychosis may lead to life-threatening thoughts or behaviors and requires immediate treatment,” writes the Mayo Clinic.

What Causes Postpartum Depression?

The mood disorder can happen for various reasons, including these, according to WebMD:

Hormonal changes. When a woman has a baby, her elevated hormone levels drop quickly, and this can trigger a change in mood and lead to depression in some women.

History of depression. The chance of developing postpartum depression is higher in women who have been depressed before or have a family history of depression.

Stress and challenges. An unwanted pregnancy or a pregnancy involving a mom who isn’t receiving the support she wants or needs can likely make her depressed. 

PPD Affects Other People Than Mothers

Postpartum depression affects more than just the new mom. New fathers can also experience postpartum depression

“They may feel sad or fatigued, be overwhelmed, experience anxiety, or have changes in their usual eating and sleeping patterns ― the same symptoms mothers with postpartum depression experience,” the Mayo Clinic publishes.

A University of Nevada, La Vegas, study published in 2019 offers an in-depth look at what new dads experience. It cites CDC data saying that between 5 and 10 percent of new fathers in the U.S. are battling PPD, and the study itself shows that the PPD risk increases for men whose partners also have the condition. 

The study found that six key themes emerged among new dads. Adhering to traditional gender expectations, repressing feelings, and feeling overwhelmed were some of the themes. New fathers also resented the new child and felt forgotten by their wives, health care system, and society in general, according to ScienceDaily’s report about the study.

A mother’s postpartum depression, if left untreated, can also affect the development of her baby. OWH writes that children whose mothers have PPD can experience the following:

  • Language, learning delays, problems
  • Behavior problems
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Challenges with mother-child bonding
  • Excessive crying, agitation, temper tantrums
  • Height, weight problems
  • Problems with managing stress, adjusting to school, social situations

When It’s Time to See a Doctor 

Postpartum is a common and treatable condition. If you or someone you know is experiencing it, you are advised to call your doctor and seek guidance on how to handle your condition. 

The Mayo Clinic advises that you should see a physician, especially if you notice that your symptoms have lasted more than two weeks, appear to be getting worse, or making it harder for you to care for your infant. You also should see a medical professional if you find it challenging to finish your daily tasks or if you are considering harming yourself or your baby.

WebMD writes that women in recovery from postpartum depression will probably see an improvement in their condition as the months progress. Menstrual periods can also bring on symptoms because of hormonal changes, so keep this in mind.

How Is PPD Treated?

According to OWH, postpartum depression is commonly treated with:

Therapy. The person with PPD will meet with a therapist, psychologist, or social worker to learn strategies that can help them change how they think, feel, and act. Therapies that can be used to treat PPD include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). CBT helps people identify unhealthy behaviors and beliefs and replace them with ones that promote healthy ways of coping with stress and other triggers and situations. 

EMDR, a therapy often used in patients who are battling post-traumatic disorder, can help women address the trauma they experienced during childbirth. Patients who undergo this therapy revisit their negative experiences or emotions while they concentrate on a stimulus, such as a moving hand or flashing light, or a sound, that can help desensitize them to painful memories or triggers. They are being taught to reprocess their memories and feelings.

Medications. Antidepressants may be prescribed to help relieve symptoms of depression. Some of these medicines can be used during the breastfeeding period. Several weeks could pass before the effects of the antidepressant are felt. All medications come with their own risks, so a doctor’s advice should be sought when determining which medications are best to take.

Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT). This psychiatric treatment is used for severe PPD cases. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “ECT involves a brief electrical stimulation of the brain while the patient is under anesthesia. It is typically administered by a team of trained medical professionals that includes a psychiatrist, an anesthesiologist, and a nurse or physician assistant.” ECT may be an option for patients who have severe major depression or bipolar disorder who have not responded to other forms of treatment.

Support groups can also help everyone affected by postpartum depression. Some groups are available online, making them widely accessible to all who are seeking guidance and help. 

PostpartumDepressing.org lists several benefits of such groups, including the encouragement, emotional validation, comfort, and advice they offer in a secure setting. Scheduled meetings also mean participants will receive help regularly. Consistent guidance can help everyone understand what they are going on and how to address it effectively.

Sources

“Depression Among Women.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24 July 2019. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/depression/index.htm

American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/pi/women/resources/reports/postpartum-depression

“See the Signs and Symptoms of Postpartum Depression.” Know the Signs. Retrieved from https://www.postpartumdepression.com/postpartum-depression-symptoms/

Johnson, Traci C. “8 Early Warning Signs of Postpartum Depression.” WebMD, WebMD, 19 Mar. 2019. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/postpartum-depression/early-warning-signs-postpartum-depression#2

“Postpartum Depression.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 1 Sept. 2018. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/postpartum-depression/symptoms-causes/syc-20376617

“Postpartum Depression.” Womenshealth.gov, 14 May 2019. Retrieved from https://www.womenshealth.gov/mental-health/mental-health-conditions/postpartum-depression

“What Is Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)?” What Is ECT? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ect#:~:text=Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a,the patient is under anesthesia

University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Forgotten fathers: New dads also at risk for postpartum depression: Study provides an in-depth look at new fathers' experiences with PPD." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 March 2019 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/03/190307091448.htm

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