Could I Be Suffering From Postpartum Depression?

I love my baby. So why do I feel so blue?

You’ve just given birth to a wonderful baby, and everyone’s ecstatic. Everyone, that is, except you. If this is supposed to be such a happy time, why do you feel so low?

You’re not alone. Some degree of emotional vulnerability is natural and expected after childbirth. Up to 80 percent of new mothers experience the baby blues, an emotional reaction that begins a few days to a week after delivery and generally lasts no longer than two weeks. If you have the blues, you may be weepy, anxious, and unable to sleep. You may also be irritable or moody.

Moms often feel better after getting some rest and a helping hand with the baby. But if your blues – or those of someone you love – have lasted more than two weeks, read on.

Could I be suffering from postpartum depression?

If you’re concerned, talk to your healthcare provider. She can diagnose your symptoms and refer you to a counselor if needed. About 10 to 15 percent of new mothers experience clinical depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

If you think you might hurt yourself or your baby, or if you feel incapable of caring for your newborn, seek professional help immediately.

Postpartum depression can begin any time during the first two months after you give birth. Symptoms may include:

  • Irritability or hypersensitivity
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Anxiety and worry
  • Crying or tearfulness
  • Anger
  • Negative feelings such as sadness, hopelessness, helplessness, or guilt
  • Loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy
  • Difficulty sleeping (especially returning to sleep)
  • Fatigue or exhaustion
  • Changes in appetite or eating habits
  • Headaches, stomachaches, muscle or backaches

Some women with PPD believe they can’t adequately care for their baby or may harm their baby.

What is postpartum anxiety?

If you’re having recurrent feelings of intense worry or panic, you may have a postpartum anxiety disorder. Recent research has shown that about 10 percent of postpartum moms suffer from clinical anxiety.

Anxiety symptoms usually appear in the first two to three weeks after the birth of a baby, but may not reach a distressing level until several weeks later. There is some overlap between depression and anxiety, and some women have symptoms of both.

Symptoms of anxiety and panic may include:

  • Extreme anxiety or irritability
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pains or discomfort
  • Sensation of choking or smothering
  • Dizziness
  • Tingling in hands or feet
  • Trembling and shaking
  • Sweating
  • Faintness
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Fear of dying, of going crazy, or of losing control

Some women with postpartum anxiety have recurrent fears about harm coming to their children, other loved ones, or themselves.

What is postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder?

If you’re having recurrent disturbing or violent thoughts or images, you may have postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). These thoughts arise spontaneously in the first couple of weeks after giving birth. Most commonly, they center on harming your baby somehow, such as stabbing the baby with knives or putting the baby in the oven.

OCD sufferers see danger everywhere, leading them to wash their hands until they are raw or check their door locks incessantly. Some also perform ritualistic behaviors to protect themselves from having bad thoughts. They may hide the knives or avoid the kitchen in an effort to ward off thoughts of harming the baby. Some women may avoid basic care, refusing to bathe their baby out of fear of thoughts about death by drowning.   Unlike moms with postpartum psychosis (PPP) women with postpartum OCD are repulsed by these thoughts of harming their baby and know not to act on them.

Note: If you ever feel compelled to act on these thoughts, seek professional help immediately. You may have what’s known as postpartum psychosis, a severe yet rare illness characterized by hallucinations, bizarre thinking, paranoia, mania, delusions, and suicidal impulses. PPP requires immediate medical intervention because of the increased risk of suicide for the mother and harm to the baby.

What causes depression after childbirth?

Experts agree there’s no single cause but rather a combination of hormonal, biochemical, environmental, psychological, and genetic factors. Current research indicates that one of the strongest predictors of PPD is depression or anxiety during pregnancy.

Am I at risk for PPD?

Some women are more likely than others to get PPD. The strongest predictors of postpartum depression are:

  • bouts of intense anxiety or depression while you were pregnant, particularly in the third trimester
  • prior history of depression or anxiety
  • family history of depression or anxiety
  • marital difficulties
  • stressful life events such as financial problems or the loss of a job
  • childcare stress
  • inadequate social support
  • having to care for a child with a difficult temperament
  • low self-esteem

Other less predictive risk factors include:

  • unplanned or unwanted pregnancy
  • being single
  • lower socioeconomic status
  • postpartum blues

Remember that these risk factors don’t actually cause PPD. Many women with a number of them never experience clinical depression, anxiety, or OCD. Others with just one risk factor, or even none, end up with a full-blown clinical condition.

What can I do to cope?

In addition to getting expert help, here are some ways to take care of yourself when you’re dealing with postpartum depression, anxiety, or OCD:

Be good to yourself. Make sure your own basic needs are met: Try to sleep and eat well, and try not to feel guilty about the way you feel now. Just because you have PPD doesn’t mean you are a bad mother or don’t love your child. Once you feel better, these feelings will diminish.

Don’t expect so much of yourself.  If you have clinical depression, anxiety, or OCD, it is enough just to get out of bed and face the day. Focus on taking good care of yourself.  If you can do this each day, you’ll be doing well.   

Ask for support. Part of being a good mother is knowing when to ask for help – so don’t be afraid to ask for it during this difficult time. Help comes in many forms, ranging from friends who cook meals and fold your laundry to therapy. You need support from others so you can get better.

Share your feelings. Tell someone you trust about how you feel. Call a sympathetic friend. Join a mothers’ group for support, or chat with moms about postpartum depression in the BabyCenter Community. You may be surprised at how many women are experiencing similar feelings. If you have a supportive partner, make sure he knows what’s going on and how he can help.

Don’t neglect your “outside.” Taking care of your physical self can sometimes help you feel better inside. Have your partner or a friend watch your baby so you can take a relaxing shower. Put on makeup if you usually wear it. Go on a shopping trip just for yourself and buy something new for your post-birth wardrobe. Wear a favorite outfit on especially difficult days to give yourself a boost.

Get some rest. The rigors of caring for a newborn 24/7 can leave you exhausted.  Unfortunately, moms with postpartum clinical conditions often can’t sleep when they want to. But it’s still important to give yourself rest breaks, even if you just read a magazine or watch TV. Ask a relative or friend to watch your baby for an hour or so each day. If no one’s available, consider hiring an experienced sitter with newborns.

Venture outdoors. Put your baby in a stroller and take a walk around the block, or meet a friend at a nearby café. The fresh air, sunshine, and conversation will do you and your baby a world of good. If even a brief excursion is too much for you right now, then just go outside, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and sit in the sunshine for a few minutes. It will help.

Slow down. Your baby’s arrival is a good reason to take it easy. Resist the temptation to do the laundry while your baby sleeps, and let the rest of your chores wait. Have food delivered, or ask your partner to get takeout on the way home. Turn off the ringer on the phone when you’re trying to get the baby to sleep or when you’re finally sitting down for a much-needed break. If you’re on maternity leave, banish all thoughts of the work awaiting you at the office. Don’t worry – you’ll get back on track soon enough.

Is it safe to take antidepressants while breastfeeding?

The effects of antidepressant medications on nursing babies haven’t been widely studied, so there isn’t much research to go on. That said, many doctors feel that the benefits of breastfeeding are so great that they generally outweigh the possible risks of using an antidepressant while nursing. Breastfeeding itself may be good for your well-being if it’s a satisfying activity for you.

If you’re breastfeeding, be sure to let your doctor know when discussing antidepressants. (For details on specific medications, see our drug safety during breastfeeding chart.)

My partner has PPD. How can I make life easier for her?

The postpartum period is hard on fathers, too. After all, you’re also busy tending to your baby’s needs, so make sure you get a lot of rest. In the meantime, offer your partner help whenever she needs it and try not to judge her. It can be difficult to adjust to a partner with PPD, especially if you expected life after the baby’s birth to be a joyous time for your family. But remember – your support is vital to her recovery.

Talk to your partner’s obstetrician, midwife, or therapist to better understand what she’s going through. You can’t fix this, but you can be there for her. What’s important is that she seek proper treatment.

Where can I get more information?

Contact these organizations:

Postpartum Support International

Coordinators provide support, encouragement, and information about postpartum mood and anxiety disorders and can help you find resources in your community.

Toll-free (800) 944-4773