What is it? Postpartum depression (PPD) is a period of depression that can occur within a year after giving birth. Between 10 and 20% of women who give birth each year have PPD and 3 to 5% of new fathers experience symptoms. Unlike PPD, the baby blues are the normal and temporary mood swings, sadness and crying that occur for a couple of weeks after birth. Symptoms of PPD include anxiety, mood swings, anger, guilt, hopelessness, constant crying, irritability, fear, loss of appetite, unwanted thoughts, and insomnia. The new parent may think that it will never get better (Berger, 2018; Berk, 2013).
So what causes postpartum depression? A person may have a genetic makeup that puts her/him at risk. Women who were depressed or who have a depressed family member are more at-risk. Huge changes in the woman’s hormones after the birth play a role. During pregnancy there are high levels of estrogen and progesterone but then right after birth they go back to normal levels, which can make depression more likely. Additional factors are financial or marital problems, a lack of support, a poor fit, and a birth experience that was different from what was expected (Berger, 2018; Berk, 2013; Feldman, 2014). But all new parents go through some adjustments, right?
There is no way to explain the effect that severe sleep deprivation has on a new mother. At the beginning the new mother is waking up every two hours to feed. The sleep deprivation builds on itself and can feel like torture. And there is nothing that you can do before the birth to help prepare you.
Besides the lack of sleep, physical and hormonal changes, there is a new lack of freedom. You can’t shower, go to the bathroom, or see a movie whenever you want. Everything revolves around this little person and your life is not your own anymore. Emotionally this can be very challenging. Having support from family and friends and a good mate can really help. I remember making a short list of things for my husband to do when he got home, like dishes or laundry, and I had to be okay with not getting those things done during the day. Feeding the baby and sleeping were the most important things. The trash could wait. Accepting food from friends and getting a doula or a mother’s helper to come over and water the plants; this all helps. What is the worst case?
In less than 1% of the cases there is PPD with psychosis. The new mother can have paranoia, hallucinations, and may actually harm herself or the baby. It is important that loved ones get her help before that happens. People with PPD may resist getting help because they don’t want to be labeled, they feel guilty or ashamed, or they are in denial. It can be helpful to have a therapist already in place during the pregnancy (Pearson, 2014). What are the effects?
When parents are depressed it can make it more challenging for them to parent well. Depressed mothers tend to be withdrawn and then their infants withdraw. These infants don’t sleep well and have more of the stress hormone cortisol. Infants of depressed mothers tend to be irritable, have delays in motor and mental skills, and attention problems. By age 16 they are four times as likely as other children to have been involved in violent behaviors like bullying, fighting, and assault. A father’s depression is also linked to later behavior problems in children. If you have symptoms of PPD it is important to talk to your doctor. Diagnosis and treatment can help how you feel and make it possible for you to be the best parent possible for your child (Berk, 2013; Feldman, 2014).
Berger, K. S. (2018). The developing person: Through Childhood and adolescence (11th ed.). New York, NY: Worth.
Berk, L. E. (2013). Child development (9th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.
Feldman, R. S. (2014). Child development: A topical approach. Boston, MA: Pearson.
Pearson, C. (2014). Why so many women don’t seek help for Postpartum Depression. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/untreated-postpartum-depression_n_6172742
Shields, B. (2005). Down came the rain: My journey through postpartum depression. New York, NY: Hyperion.