Postpartum Depression: Symptoms, Causes, and Risk Factors
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Postpartum Depression

What Is Postpartum Depression?

Highlights

  1. Postpartum depression (PPD) is caused by changes in a woman’s hormone levels during pregnancy and after birth.
  2. PPD occurs in nearly 15 percent of births. It’s highly treatable with antidepressants and talk therapy.
  3. New fathers can also develop depression during their partner’s pregnancy or the first year of their baby’s life.

According to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), up to 80 percent of new mothers experience feelings of fatigue, worry, and unhappiness after giving birth. These “baby blues” usually go away within a week. If these feelings don't go away, you may have a more serious condition called postpartum depression (PPD).

Researchers believe that PPD is caused by changes in a woman's hormone levels during pregnancy and shortly after birth. It occurs in almost 15 percent of births, reports the NIMH. It can start before or after childbirth. However, it usually begins between a week and a month following delivery.

Symptoms of Postpartum Depression

Symptoms

All women experience hormonal changes following childbirth. For some women, the changes in hormone levels can lead to depression.

Symptoms of postpartum depression include:

  • anger
  • irritability
  • anxiety attacks
  • trouble eating or sleeping
  • crying for no apparent reason
  • feelings of worthlessness
  • questioning your ability to parent
  • suicidal ideation or thoughts of harming the baby
  • feelings of franticness, mania, or paranoia

In a small number of cases, PPD can develop into postpartum psychosis. It’s a much more serious condition than PPD.

What Causes Postpartum Depression?

Causes

When you’re pregnant, your levels of estrogen and progesterone rise dramatically. This helps your uterus expand and sustains your placenta. Within 48 hours of delivery, the levels of both hormones plummet. Because both hormones are also associated with neurotransmitters that affect your mood, the "postpartum hormonal crash" puts you at higher risk of depression.

In addition to the trauma of pregnancy and childbirth, experiences associated with parenting can also raise your risk of postpartum depression.

What Are Risk Factors for Developing Postpartum Depression?

Risk Factors

If you’ve had any type of depression in the past, your chances of developing PPD are higher.

The stresses of new parenthood can also lead to social isolation and relationship conflicts. This can increase your risk of developing PPD. Thus, it’s important to reach out to friends and family for support during this difficult yet rewarding time in your life.

Sleep deprivation can also exacerbate PPD. Loss of sleep is extremely common in new mothers.  

How Postpartum Depression Is Diagnosed

Diagnosis

You should contact your doctor or midwife immediately if you suspect you or your partner have PPD.

PPD is highly treatable. However, if left untreated, it can last for months or even years in some cases. 

PPD is considered a major form of depression. Therefore, it’s important for clinicians to rule out other medical problems that can cause similar symptoms. 

For instance, anemia — a deficiency of red blood cells — is a common complication of pregnancy. It can lead to fatigue and other symptoms of depression. Another condition that must be ruled out is a thyroid deficiency. It can lower your mood and energy. Both conditions are easily treatable, using iron pills for anemia or hormone supplements for thyroid deficiency.

Treatments for Postpartum Depression

Treatment

Like other forms of major depression, PPD is best treated with a combination of antidepressants and talk therapy. Prescribed medications must be safe for nursing mothers.

According to an expert interview conducted by the NIMH, research suggests that a hormone treatment that includes estradiol — a form of estrogen — may also have a "rapid antidepressant effect" on women with PPD. Studies are ongoing. So far, the results are encouraging.

If you have the most dangerous symptoms of PPD, you may need to be hospitalized to protect your health and your newborn baby.

A Note for New Dads

men

A 2010 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 10.4 percent of new fathers developed "paternal depression" during their partner's pregnancy or the first year of the their new baby's life. That’s about twice the rate of depression for men in general. If you’re a man whose partner has PPD, your risk of developing paternal depression is even higher.

Symptoms of parental depression are similar to those of PPD. They may include:

  • sadness
  • anger
  • irritability
  • changes in sleeping patterns
  • eating problems
  • loss of interest in once-pleasurable activities

Contact your doctor if you have these symptoms. They can assess you for depression and discuss treatment options.

Read This Next

Are There Natural Remedies for Postpartum Depression?
Do Men Experience Postpartum Depression?
Perinatal Depression: Treatments & Symptoms
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