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What is postpartum depression?

In 2006, Marlena gave birth to her third son, Eli. It had been a smooth, happy pregnancy, with no complications during labor and delivery. The tears flowed freely in the first few moments of holding her newborn baby, but Marlena remembers how the tears just kept coming.

“We even laughed about it, my husband and I, in the beginning,” recalls Marlena. “We thought, wow, this is that hormonal mood swing thing that everyone always talks about! I never had that after my first two kids, at least not that I’m aware of.

“With Eli, I was just very weepy, like all that time.”

Over the next two or three weeks, Marlena says the sadness deepened. She was often crying or lashing out at her husband, Bill. She wasn’t sleeping, since the baby was nursing every three hours, so she chalked the mood swings up to sleeplessness.

When the sadness didn’t lift after three months, Marlena turned to her sister-in-law, who gently advised her that she may have postpartum depression, and to see her doctor.

The “baby blues” occur for many moms after childbirth – typically that means a few days of crying, anxiety and insomnia, as well as appetite issues, irritability and a general feeling of overwhelm. The baby blues can last for up to two weeks.

But when that sadness sticks, like it did for Marlena, it could become postpartum depression, which is more severe and longer lasting.

What are the symptoms?

Postpartum depression symptoms might include the following:

  • Crying
  • Feelings unworthy
  • Shame
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty bonding with the baby
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Hopelessness
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Withdrawing from people you love
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Panic attacks
  • Suicidal ideation

Postpartum depression can at first be mistaken for the baby blues, but sometimes the symptoms are so intense that it impedes on a woman’s ability to care for herself or her baby. Postpartum doesn’t always happen right away – sometimes postpartum depression doesn’t appear until up to 12 months after birth.

Postpartum depression isn’t a sign of weakness or inability to be a good mother; some women are so embarrassed by feeling what they’re feeling that they fail to seek help. The truth is that the physical changes that happen after childbirth – that dramatic hormone drop, for one – can cause postpartum, and the emotional challenges are also very real. Think of anyone who’s as sleep deprived and overwhelmed as a new mother (and when we say new, we mean anytime any woman has just given birth, whether it’s her first baby or her fifth) and you’d probably wonder how they wouldn’t be feeling so overcome with a myriad of difficult emotions.

Who’s at risk?

There are some moms who are more susceptible to postpartum depression, although it can occur in anyone. If you have a history of mental health disorders (whether it’s your own or your family), if your baby has special needs, if you have a weak support system, if you’re having financial difficulties, or if you’ve undergone some major stress or trauma in the last year, you’re more at risk for postpartum depression.

How is postpartum depression diagnosed?

If you feel you may have postpartum depression, see your doctor. They’ll talk with you about how you might be feeling right now and will conduct an evaluation that may include a depression screening, blood tests, and other potentially warranted tests that could rule out other possibilities for why you’re experiencing certain symptoms.

How is postpartum depression treated?


Treatment and recovery time will vary – it depends entirely on you and your own needs. If there’s an underlying illness, you and your doctor may develop a plan to work on any co-existing conditions together or you may be referred to a specialist. There are talk therapy options as well as medication.

The bottom line is that postpartum depression is not hopeless. And you’re not alone. Many women experience this, and with the right treatment and support, before you know it, you’ll soon be on your way to finding relief.

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