Understanding Postpartum Depression

Some new mothers -- as many as 18 percent -- experience postpartum depression. See more parenting pictures.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

The hard work of pregnancy, labor, and delivery required tremendous effort on your part. However, the moment you bring your new baby home is when the real work begins. In addition to adjusting to the sleepless nights and the constant vigilance required by a newborn, some mothers find they other, emotional hurdles to overcome.

Many women report that after giving birth they enjoy a feeling of euphoria they have never before experienced. This sense of well-being, of having accomplished a miracle, carries them through those first difficult weeks of fatigue and apprehension about their skill in caring for the new baby. Others -- about between 11 and 18 percent [CDC]-- are not so fortunate. These women experience postpartum depression.

Postpartum depression is a very real and often very frightening occurrence that affects up to 18 percent of new mothers, according to the CDC. Symptoms include changes in sleeping and/or eating patterns, irritability, mood swings, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, crying jags and difficulty concentrating. Unlike the "baby blues," which typically last only a few weeks, postpartum depression lasts longer and can be more severe. In addition, a lack of energy, withdrawal from family and friends, unexplained anxiety, and certain physical ailments such as headaches and heart palpitations could also be symptoms of depression. Women experiencing postpartum depression may also find that they are uninterested in the new baby or have irrational fears of harming her.

While these feelings my shock or even frighten a new mother, they are normal. In this article, we will explore the phenomenon of postpartum depression, as well as some of the treatment options available. Let's begin with a look at some of the possible causes of postpartum depression.

Causes of Postpartum Depression

For reasons medical experts have not been able to agree upon, you may find you experience postpartum depression beginning a few days or even a few weeks after the birth of your baby. And if you suffered from postpartum depression with one child, you're 50 percent more likely to develop after another child [Health]. Most likely, postpartum depression results from a combination of psychological, sociological, and physiological conditions.

Medical uncertainty. Some authorities say the blues are caused by a drop in the level of maternal hormones and/or, occasionally, thyroid hormones. Others believe they can be the result of an unusually taxing birth with prolonged, difficult labor. Many mothers say the cause is simply the total exhaustion that results from too little sleep and too much responsibility, plus the fact a woman may be attempting to emulate the Supermom standards she has read and heard about -- the standards that say any intelligent, healthy woman can do and handle everything.

Doctors think other factors that may make one woman, rather than another, susceptible to postpartum depression may be an unhappy childhood, perhaps including mental or physical abuse; a history of depression and difficulties in managing stress; an unwanted baby or one whose birth was expected to solve a couple's marital problems; a premature birth; or an ill baby.

Not always love at first sight. First-time parents usually learn a few surprising facts about themselves, finding, for example, that they have more physical stamina or more natural parenting ability than they thought they had. They may also find they are neither as patient nor as perfect in their new jobs as they had expected to be.

Sometimes accompanying the mother's postpartum problems, and perhaps contributing to them, is her feeling she is a bad mother, unnatural and heartless, if she does not feel instant, overwhelming love for this new little creature who depends on her so completely. This feeling is perfectly normal, and she should accept it, with the attitude, "This, too, shall pass." Love at first sight is not a common occurrence, in spite of its frequency in romantic novels. Deep, lifetime love almost always develops slowly over time, and the unique bond of love a parent feels for a child is the deepest and longest-lasting of all.

I can't do this! Also contributing to depression for some women is a feeling of total incompetence and inability to properly care for this tiny, helpless, incessantly demanding human being. These days, expectant parents are rarely ignorant of the habits of babies. So you probably were aware that besides sleeping a great deal, your baby would require feeding from eight to 12 times in a 24-hour period [Mayo Clinic] and a change of diapers several times a day, and he or she might spend some time each day crying.

But now that you are on call every minute of the day and night, you find these habits aren't as simple as you expected. The baby sleeps at the wrong times, for shorter periods than you anticipated and perhaps more often and longer during the day than at night. You worry about the amount of covers to use in the baby's crib, the temperature in the room, and the household noise that may wake the baby. Feedings are sometimes tense as you struggle with the unfamiliar routines of breast- or bottle-feeding and wonder if the baby is taking enough or too much milk or formula. Dressing the baby and changing diapers are not the smoothly-orchestrated operations you imagined them to be, even with cleverly constructed infant clothing and fitted disposables that need no pins. And the baby's crying is more frequent, more distressing, and less explainable than you thought it would be.

So far, we've covered the basics of postpartum depression: who it affects, what it is, and why it happens. On the next page, we'll discuss preventing and treating postpartum depression. Keep reading for some time-tested tips on surviving the baby blues.