Postpartum Depression: Causes, Symptoms and Remedies
After the birth of her 3rd child, Stacie found herself overwhelmed by mood swings. She would be euphoric one moment, and completely sad the next. But most of the time, she would feel anxious. A gnawing, unending sense of anxiety. She also felt extremely afraid. A gut-wrenching dread – as if something terrible was about to happen. This would leave her crying uncontrollably.
A seasoned mother, she couldn’t make sense of what was happening. She had delivered without a hitch. And her baby was fine. So, why was this dark cloud hanging over her? Why was she feeling like impending gloom was coming upon her? Why did she feel utterly powerless to shake off the sadness which seemed to be consuming her very soul?
Her confusion was about to turn to terror. And it all began with a single idea. A thought that flashed through her mind for a fleeting second. And left behind a wave of anger, recrimination, and self-doubt. She had committed the ultimate maternal blasphemy. She had thought about hurting her child!
Introducing Postpartum Depression
Stacie’s experience describes a health condition which affects roughly 1 in 9 moms. This condition is called Postpartum Depression (PPD in short). The symptoms experienced by Stacie are just some of those which people with PPD manifest. More on that later. Let’s begin from the basics. What is PPD?
The word “postpartum” means the period after childbirth. This word is typically used to describe experiences moms face after giving birth. For instance, “postpartum weight gain” refers to instances in which some moms gain weight rapidly after giving birth.
Postpartum depression refers to feelings of depression experienced by new moms. Okay, you shouldn’t use a word to define itself, right? So let’s explain it further. When you’re depressed, you typically feel empty, sad, anxious, hopeless, and a range of other negative emotions. These feelings are typically not triggered or tied to a specific event or occurrence. When such feelings arise in the period after childbirth, it begins to fit the bill for Postpartum Depression.
No, Not Baby Blues
The symptoms of PPD are extremely close to another more condition normally referred to as “baby blues”. This condition is actually far more common – affecting around 8 out of 10 moms. Moms experiencing baby blues tend to feel a number of symptoms which include:
- Having mood swings
- Becoming irritable
- Feeling anxious
- Having sleeping problems
- Feeling very sad
- Occasionally breaking down and crying
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Losing concentration
- Losing appetite
These symptoms usually begin to manifest a few hours or a few days after giving birth. Baby blues typically last for 3 to 5 days. And if they take a really long, they will last for at most two weeks. Beyond two weeks, you’re no longer dealing with baby blues. It is most likely PPD.
Postpartum depression differs from baby blues in three ways. First is the timing. PPD typically begins a few weeks after delivery. It can even begin up to one year after delivery. In a few instances, Postpartum Depression symptoms begin manifesting during pregnancy (this usually becomes obvious in hindsight).
The second way PPD differs from baby blues is in intensity. Baby blues is child’s play. Postpartum Depression is typically extremely severe. In most cases, it is so debilitating that it can render the mom incapable of caring for her newborn. We’ll look at the symptoms shortly.
The third way PPD differs from baby blues is in how long it lasts. As mentioned before, baby blues last at most for two weeks. PPD persists for months – or even more than a year (especially if untreated). Also, baby blues often disappear without expert intervention. PPD needs to be treated. In fact, it is the length of time which makes people realize that what they thought was baby blues could be something more severe.
Signs and Symptoms
The symptoms of Postpartum Depression are many and varied. They can also differ from one mom to another. However, these are some of the symptoms which moms with postpartum depression exhibit.
- Feeling extremely sad, anxious, or hopeless
- Feeling empty, moody, restless, or overwhelmed
- Having extreme mood swings (i.e. euphoric in one moment and extreme sadness in another)
- Getting thoughts of self-harm or suicide
- Getting thoughts of hurting the baby
- Feeling disinterested in the baby (i.e. feeling like not caring about the baby, no emotional connection to the baby)
- Feeling lethargic (low energy) and demotivated
- Having problems remembering things, focusing or making decisions
- Having persistent headaches, stomach pains, and body aches which don’t go away
- Feeling like you want to be alone (withdrawing from friends and family)
- Having sleep problems (i.e. too little sleep or too much sleep)
- Losing interest in your hobbies or things which you normally enjoy
It is important to note that each mom with PPD will exhibit slightly different symptoms. Not one will show ALL of the above symptoms. However, most of them will manifest a combination of them. The degree of severity will also differ from one mom to another. Irrespective of this, there’s one thing which is important to remember:
Not Your Fault, Mommy
This needs to be said upfront. Postpartum Depression is nobody’s fault. It is certainly not the mom’s fault. As we shall see shortly, the causes of PPD are numerous. In almost all cases, there’s nothing the mom can do to prevent it.
A mom experiencing PPD almost always feels like a bad mom. This is especially because the condition can make you reluctant to take care of your child. You can feel like not nursing them. In extreme cases, you can feel like hurting the child. Such things can make you feel like a bad mom.
To make matters worse, the moments of not wanting a child can be interspersed with moments of extreme possessiveness. In such moments, you beat yourself up for neglecting your own child. Just remember that PPD is a serious medical condition. None of this is your fault.
Research studies have found that PPD can affect between from 10 to 22 percent of new moms. The rates can differ from one geographical location to another. In some areas, more women experience PPD than in others. The point here is that PPD just happens to some new moms. It happens due to no fault of their own.
What Causes Postpartum Depression?
Postpartum Depression isn’t caused by a single factor. A combination of factors typically come together to trigger PPD. These range from hormonal changes, relationship problems, challenges of new motherhood and a history of depression. Let’s break these down
Most women experience mood swings during their menstrual periods. What causes these mood swings is the sudden change in hormonal levels in the body. Something similar occurs after childbirth and triggers PPD in some women.
When you get pregnant, two hormones (estrogen and progesterone) rise to extremely high levels in the body. These hormones (which are often referred to as the “female hormones”) enable your body to adjust to the pregnancy.
Once you give birth, these hormones rapidly fall back to their pre-pregnancy levels. The hormonal drop is sudden and swift – often occurring within 24 hours of giving birth. This sudden drop in estrogen and progesterone levels, according to researchers, is what triggers postpartum depression.
Another hormonal change which occurs after giving birth is in thyroid hormones. The thyroid is a gland found in the neck. Its job is to help your body to store and use energy from the food you eat. Low levels of thyroid hormones can cause you to experience depression-like symptoms. Thyroid hormone levels typically drop after childbirth. This could contribute to PPD.
Stressful Life Events
Stress is can often lead to depression. This is something which is well known. PPD can be caused by stressful life events. Generally speaking, anything which stresses the mom can lead to Postpartum Depression. Examples include:
- Having a difficult pregnancy or childbirth
- Experiencing health problems
- Relationship problems (e.g. suffering intimate partner abuse)
- Having no support from your partner, family or friends
- When the pregnancy was unwanted or unplanned
- Experiencing personal or family tragedies (e.g. severe illness or death of a partner or close family member)
- Having financial problems
Difficulty Adjusting to Motherhood
Being a new mom is no walk in the park. Any mom will tell you this. It takes some adjusting. The greatest challenge is faced by first-time moms. The whole experience can be quite scary. The difficulties of adjusting to being a mom can cause PPD. These difficulties include:
- Extreme fatigue which arises from labor and childbirth
- Interrupted sleep patterns (due to waking up through the night to attend to the baby) which lead to exhaustion
- Getting overwhelmed by taking care of the baby
- Feeling fearful that you won’t be a good mom
- Having unrealistic expectations about what it feels to be a good mom
- Feeling a loss of identity due to childbirth (e.g. the baby has stolen your social life)
- Lacking “me time” i.e. time to relax and recuperate
Now, almost all new moms experience these difficulties. Most cope with them just fine (especially if they have good social support). Others – especially moms under 20 and those with a history of depression – fail to cope. These challenges lead to PPD. The good news is that there’s help for people with PPD.
Diagnosing Postpartum Depression
Postpartum Depression can only be diagnosed by a trained professional. This is a critical point. The diagnosis should typically be carried out by an obstetrician. Whoever begins manifesting the symptoms needs to visit an OB-GYN for expert diagnosis.
Getting expert diagnosis is critical for two reasons. First of all, the symptoms of PPD can easily be mistaken for other conditions. As mentioned before, they can look like baby blues (at least for a while). There is another condition called postpartum psychosis which has some symptoms similar to PPD. Therefore, you need an expert diagnosis to get to the heart of the matter. The diagnosis can involve measuring levels of the thyroid hormones in the body.
Secondly, an expert opinion is required to get the appropriate treatment. We shall discuss treatment options shortly. For now, it is important to note that the treatment options can differ from one person to another. An expert – preferably an OB-GYN – is the best-placed person to determine the best course of treatment based on their assessment of the situation.
Treating Postpartum Depression
The good news is that Postpartum Depression can be treated. The treatment options are determined by the medic who assesses the mom. That being said, there are three treatment options which are typically used for PPD. These include:
This is also referred to as “talk therapy”. It can be carried out by a psychologist, psychiatrist, or any other mental health professional. This therapy helps you to deal with your thoughts and feelings. The therapist works with you to develop strategies for handling your thoughts, emotions, and situations in a positive manner.
Your doctor may recommend medication. In most cases, this medication may be in the form of antidepressants. Taking the antidepressants can help in alleviating the symptoms of depression. The only challenge with taking any medication during breastfeeding is that it can end up in breast milk. Fortunately, most antidepressants don’t have such problems. Even then, your doctor will work talk you through any potential risks.
In some cases, the doctor may recommend thyroid boosters. This is the case when they find that a drop in thyroid hormones contributed to PPD. These boosters increase the levels of thyroid hormones in the body and lead to energy levels become normal.
These treatments can be used in isolation or in combination. At all times, the welfare of your baby will be paramount. Basically, your doctor will recommend a treatment option which can benefit you without inconveniencing your baby. Even then, the best option is to begin treatment early. This requires consulting a medical professional as soon as the symptoms begin manifesting.
Helping A Mom With Postpartum Depression
Social support is essential to the recovery from PPD. In fact, most PPD psychotherapy treatments are combined with family therapy. This is because the support of spouses and family members is essential for quick recovery.
In case a mom begins showing signs of PPD, here is how their partner, family, and friends can help:
- Provide them with emotional and moral support
- Help them with childcare
- Show them that you understand their predicament
- Assure them that their child will be well taken care of (especially in moments when they need to go for treatment)
- Be patient and understanding of their irritability and mood swings
- Avoid being judgmental towards them
- Recommend that they see a professional ASAP
Helping the Other Kids
PPD can be especially difficult for a mom who already has other kids. It can be a confusing and disturbing time for the kids. Remember, most kids (if they’ve been well prepared for the newborn’s arrival) are usually quite excited to have their little brother or sister. They usually want to help take care of the newborn (in their own little ways).
This excitement is typically intermixed with episodes of jealousy and possessiveness. This is especially true in moments when they need mommy – but the baby is taking all of mommy’s attention. They begin to feel like the baby has come to steal mommy away. And they won’t like it one bit. They begin acting out and throwing tantrums.
The problem with Postpartum Depression is that it makes mommy irritable. Her fuse becomes quite short. She finds herself lashing out at the other kids. Even if she doesn’t lash out, she can become emotionally distant and disconnected from her kids. She is no longer as warm and cuddly as before. The kids interpret it that mommy doesn’t love them anymore. That mommy hates them. And it is baby’s fault that mommy hates them!
What the other kids need is reassurance. They need to understand that mommy is not well. They need to be told that mommy still loves them. That mommy will never stop loving them. That they’re special and dear to mommy. But mommy is not fine right now. She is sick. But she will get better soon – and everything will be alright again.
Postpartum depression is a challenge which some new moms have to grapple with. It occurs in between 10 to 22 percent of new moms. When it happens, it can leave a mom unable to take care of herself or baby. If not dealt with, PPD can drive moms to harm themselves or the baby. The good news is that it can be treated. As soon as a mom begins manifesting the symptoms, she needs to contact her OB-GYN ASAP.
Please remember to always ask for help when you need it. And as always consult with your physician if you have any of these symptoms.
Until Next Time,