It's not uncommon for women to experience a brief period of the blues after childbirth. The sudden drop after birth in the hormones experienced during pregnancy can have a significant impact on mood. That, along with lack of sleep and the increasing responsibilities of caring for a new baby, can make quite an impression on the mothers mental health.
"This is why symptoms of postpartum depression may be difficult to sort out from the physical and life changes brought about by the birth of a new baby. What you want to watch out for is the severity of these feelings and how long they persist," says Vesna Pirec, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist and researcher at Rush who specializes in womens mental health issues and posttraumatic stress. "If it last longer than 10 days or the symptoms become more severe, the mother should see her doctor for immediate evaluation and treatment."
In addition, any fears a mother has of hurting herself or her child need to be taken seriously, according to Pirec. If the mother has either of these concerns, she needs to seek professional help immediately. This, of course, is true at any point, not just when the child is a newborn.
Some common symptoms of postpartum depression are:
- Insomnia (mother cant sleep even when she gets the opportunity)
- Frequent crying
- Lack of appetite or interest in food
- Feelings of inadequacy and guilt
- Being withdrawn from others
- Feeling withdrawn from the child
- Anxiety (feeling worried, nervous, fearful or uneasy)
- Obsessive feelings (having recurring unwanted thoughts, feelings or impulses)
- Having self-destructive thoughts
- Feeling suicidal
- Feeling like she wants to harm her child
You or a loved one may have one of these symptoms or many. The most important thing is to seek help right away, especially if the mother feels like she may harm herself or her baby. The doctor will be happy to work with mother to evaluate the severity of her symptoms and explore what resources and treatments are best for her.
"Many people don't realize that postpartum depression may occur up to six months to a year after the birth. It's important to be vigilant," says Pirec. "A mother may not show symptoms until several months after the birth. She also may not recognize her own symptoms because of insomnia or feeling overwhelmed."
The Importance of Support
Good support from family, loved ones or professionals is key to preventing or lessening the impact of postpartum depression. "You need someone who can come in and help the mother," says Pirec. "While it's helpful to have emotional support, you need someone who is physically there to help relieve some of the burden of providing care for a newborn."
"You'd be surprised what a difference it can make for someone to organize things so that the mother has a lot of physical help," Pirec adds. "Enough help that she gets the rest she needs and feels she can do a few things for herself."
Risk Factors for Postpartum Depression
There are a number of things that can put you or someone you love at higher risk for depression during and after pregnancy:
- Personal history of substance abuse problems (abuse of alcohol and other drugs)
- Previous history of postpartum depression
- Personal or family history of depression or other mental illness
- Previous history of premenstrual dysphoria (a severe form of premenstrual syndrome)
- Not enough or no support from family or friends
- Anxiety about the newborn or fetus
- Problems with previous pregnancies
- Marital or financial problems
- Being a mother at a young age
"While being a young mother is a common risk factor for postpartum depression, my observation has been that professional women who are having children later in life are also vulnerable," Pirec says. "This group, probably because of their business training, seems to have more anxiety about trying to do everything perfectly, and this takes its toll on their mental health."
Postpartum depression is a serious, but treatable condition. The most important thing is to either prevent it or catch it in its earliest stages. "To prevent it, provide the mother with lots of hands-on support, like doing housekeeping or watching the baby for her," says Pirec. "Help her to feel like shes doing a good job as a parent."
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Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.
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