Having a baby is a joyous occasion. It marks the beginning of all things – hope, wonder and possibility. For some women, however, this elation can be overshadowed by feelings of sadness, anxiety, exhaustion and other symptoms.
As a woman, we have the unique ability to carry and bring life into this world. It’s a miracle, but it also comes with lots of hormonal and physical changes and major disruptions to daily life. It’s no wonder some new moms experience “baby blues” and others battle something more serious known as postpartum depression, a common perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 8 women experience symptoms of postpartum depression – and as many as 1 in 5 women depending on which state.
“The statistics are pretty alarming, but what’s more alarming is that only 15% of women seek treatment—there’s still a huge stigma we’re battling when it comes to highlighting this mental health challenge,” said Robin Giles, a family nurse practitioner and OBGYN with Banner - University Medicine North. “As a health care provider, we want all women to know that this is a medical condition and that there’s help.”
If you’re a new or expectant mom, here are the 10 things to know about postpartum depression and PMAD.
1. Postpartum depression isn’t the same as the baby blues.
It’s undeniable that there will be some adjustments after having a baby—whether they are your first or third—so it’s to be expected that you may feel physically and emotionally overwhelmed. “Most moms experience some ups and downs, weepiness, exhaustion, forgetfulness and stress after their baby is born,” Giles said. “These ‘baby blues’ are transient, meaning they usually resolve about 10 days after delivery. If they don’t, it may be a sign of a bigger problem such as postpartum depression.”
2. Postpartum depression isn’t just about feeling sad.
Although depression is the most common PMAD, other conditions can occur separately or in tandem with postpartum depression, and they can vary widely from mild to severe.
“PMAD groups everything together: depression, anxiety, OCD, panic attacks and PTSD, and as a result, there is a constellation of symptoms that can occur,” Giles said. “Things like a change in appetite, a decrease or increase in energy, sluggishness or fatigue, crying for no reason, lack of interest in things you once enjoyed, trouble bonding, trouble concentrating, scary thoughts, sleep issues—these can all overlap.”
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms for more than two weeks, it’s important to follow-up with your health care provider.
3. Women with postpartum depression aren’t alone.
Some women don’t tell anyone about their symptoms, because they may feel embarrassed, ashamed or guilty for their symptoms when they should be happy.
“Just because you see the picture-perfect mom on the cover of a magazine smiling with her hair and makeup done, that’s not reality,” Giles said. “Reality can be messy, especially after having a baby. Find a group of friends who will be honest and real with you and will be there and understand what you’re going through. You aren’t alone.”
4. Postpartum depression can affect women and men.
You may be surprised to learn that postpartum depression can affect men as well as women, regardless of age, race, socioeconomic status, culture or education. There is not a single specific cause for postpartum depression, but it can result from a combination of physical and emotional factors that occur after childbirth.
Here are some risk factors that can increase a woman’s chance of experiencing postpartum depression:
- Personal or family history of depression, anxiety or a mood disorder
- Symptoms of depression during or after a previous pregnancy
- History of one or more pregnancy losses
- Stressful life events, such as job loss, domestic violence, a global pandemic or the death of a loved one
- Medical complications during childbirth, including premature delivery or having a baby with medical problems
- Lack of emotional and physical support from a partner, family or friends
- Mixed feelings about the pregnancy, whether it was planned or unplanned
- Alcohol or drug abuse problems
5. Sleep deprivation can be a huge risk factor.
While there are many factors at play when it comes to postpartum depression, sleep deprivation can make symptoms worse—for both parents. It’s also linked to suicidal thoughts in women with postpartum depression.
Unfortunately, sleeping well is easier said than done when you’re caring for a newborn. Those late-night feedings and cries for consoling will have you rolling out of bed at all hours of the night.
The good news is that with some help, you can get your sleep back on track. Check out these healthy sleep hygiene practices and tips to help get your baby to sleep through the night. If you’re still experiencing issues with sleep, talk to your health care provider.
6. Postpartum psychosis is very rare.
You may have read about a mom’s psychotic break in the news or seen it on TV, but postpartum psychosis is extremely rare, affecting 1 to 2 women in every 1,000. Nonetheless, it is very dangerous and “is a medical emergency,” Giles said.
“Psychosis is far beyond symptoms of postpartum depression symptoms; in this case, women have lost all sense of reality,” she said. “Symptoms include hallucinations, delusions, paranoia and some may have thoughts of hurting themselves or their baby.”
7. Postpartum depression is treatable.
Today, there are several treatment options for postpartum depression. Talk to your health care provider about which one or combination is right for you based on your individual needs and factors.
Typically, treatments may include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy with a licensed behavioral health specialist
- Prescription medications, such as antidepressants
- Healthy lifestyle practices, such as maintaining a healthy diet, physical activity, meditation and yoga and avoiding alcohol
- Support groups and group therapy
8. If left untreated, postpartum depression can have negative effects on the whole family.
Undiagnosed and untreated postpartum depression can cause serious complications for moms, babies and families. “Research shows untreated postpartum depression can lead to chronic depression and dysfunction, such as leaning on substances to cope,” Giles said. “Babies can also be at an increased risk for depression, attachment issues, colic, and sleeping and developmental challenges.”
Untreated postpartum depression can also affect the partner, leading them to feel disconnected and helpless to comfort. They too may be at greater risk for chronic depression and substance abuse.
9. Postpartum depression can come back after having another baby, but there are things you can do to reduce your risk.
Having postpartum depression with a previous pregnancy can put you at greater risk the next time you’re pregnant, but there are things that you can do to reduce your risk and the severity of depressive symptoms.
“There are some women who may have had no history of postpartum depression before but may still be greater risk in a subsequent pregnancy,” Giles said. “While we can’t prevent or guess whether it will occur or not, working together with your health care provider can help identify any potential risks and they can work with you to address them.”
10. You aren’t a bad mom.
We all want to be the best parent we can be, and like most women, we set really high expectations for ourselves. When those expectations fall short, such as having postpartum depression, we can beat ourselves up the most. The reality is that any woman can experience depression during pregnancy or after, it doesn’t make them a bad mom.
“The bravest thing you can do is ask for help—it’s so important,” Giles said.
Giles shared a quote from a patient who successfully navigated her postpartum depression:
“Postpartum depression is very different from what you expect; you have to expect the unexpected. You have to try not to worry too much about what can be but rather what is. It doesn’t matter whether you’re not already treated; it’s important to get help. It doesn’t make you a bad person or mother.”
If you’re struggling with symptoms of postpartum depression or PMAD, don’t suffer alone. Contact your health care provider or a licensed behavioral health specialist.
In addition, we’ve included some resources that can get you started on the path to better health:
- Postpartum Support International: Text “Help” to 800-944-4773
- Banner Pregnancy and Postpartum Adjustment Support Group – register online for the free and virtual sessions provided by the staff at Banner Gateway Medical Center
- You’ve Got This – free and virtual monthly support group: register online or call 520-694-4525 or 800-230-2273 to register
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline: Call 800-273-8255