Postpartum depression is a mental health condition that presents with symptoms of depression right after giving birth and may last a long time if it goes untreated. It’s not the same as the baby blues.
Feeling overwhelmed after the birth of a child is natural. In fact, it’s how most people feel after welcoming a baby. But symptoms of postpartum depression are more complex and may require professional support.
You cry often and without an apparent reason. You’re more irritable than usual, and sometimes you even feel like getting away from everyone — including your baby.
And then, there’s the sudden guilt for feeling this way. You’re fatigued, achy, and don’t feel hopeful about what’s coming next. Sometimes, you may even feel angry at everything and everyone.
Other times, you might look at your baby and feel… nothing. Then you start believing there might be something wrong with you, and this makes you feel worse.
In reality, this isn’t who you are, and it’s not a reflection of you as a person or as a parent.
In other words, postpartum depression isn’t the result of a character flaw, weakness, or lack of ability to raise a child.
Rest assured, you didn’t do anything to cause these symptoms of postpartum depression.
Your body and mind are putting a filter on how you see yourself, the world, and your baby. But, with help, that filter can be lifted.
A good first step is understanding what postpartum depression is and isn’t. An important follow-up is opening up about what you’re experiencing with family, friends, and health professionals.
The symptoms of postpartum depression can be very similar to those of other types of depression.
Symptoms of postpartum depression typically appear within 4 weeks after childbirth. In some instances, they can also come on fast, even within the first 72 hours.
In other cases, some symptoms might not appear until
General symptoms of postpartum depression include:
- feeling overwhelmed most of the time
- intense sadness and feelings of hopelessness
- crying for “no reason” and often
- desire to withdraw from your baby, partner, family members, and social situations
- feeling detached, disconnected, or uninterested in your baby
- feeling disconnected from your partner
- worrying you might hurt your baby
- worrying someone else might hurt your baby
- not being able to sleep even when your baby is sleeping
- not being able to relax
- feeling lonely or neglected by others even if they’re around
- trouble concentrating
- changes in appetite
- having extreme anxiety episodes
- experiencing anger or rage without an apparent trigger
- not being able to enjoy activities as you did before
- feeling guilt and shame
- acting irritable
- physical aches and pains
- recurrent suicidal thoughts
This isn’t an all-inclusive list of symptoms. Postpartum depression doesn’t look the same way for everyone.
These signs and symptoms of postpartum depression can last for a long period of time — from weeks to months. This is one of the reasons why it’s important you talk about it with family and health professionals as soon as you notice them.
Subtle symptoms of postpartum depression
Sometimes, there are subtle symptoms of postnatal depression that might be missed but that affect parents and their children nonetheless.
One of these subtle symptoms is the tendency to ruminate or over-focus on negative thoughts. These thoughts could be about anything and everything, including yourself and your baby.
Distorted thoughts might lead you to misinterpret some cues from your baby. For example, a cry for comfort from the little one might become a nuisance to you and could make you leave the room.
This, of course, is not your intention — but because of your depressed mood, this is how you feel. This can get in the way of you bonding with your baby and responding to their needs.
Sometimes you might start obsessing about specific things. For instance, you might check the locks all the time, or verify every few minutes that the baby is safe. You might also feel you don’t want anyone else touching your baby.
When to seek help
Treatment for postpartum depression is important in all cases, but it becomes a priority when:
- your symptoms are getting worse or more intense
- you have thoughts of hurting yourself, others, or your baby
- you’re having problems functioning or performing everyday tasks
- you’re having intense physical symptoms
Commonly confused, postpartum depression is not the same as “baby blues.”
Baby blues refers to a common feeling of irritability, worry, fatigue, and sadness during the first few days after giving birth.
Some symptoms of baby blues include:
- waves of anxiety without any apparent trigger
- worrying about being good enough as a parent
- doubting your own ability to handle your baby and the situation
- wondering when you’ll be able to return to your regular activities
- feeling overwhelmed by the needs of your baby or not knowing how to respond to those needs
- being concerned about your baby’s health
- being concerned about your relationship with your partner
- feeling uncomfortable in your own body or having difficulty accepting its changes
Up to 80% of people who give birth experience symptoms of baby blues.
The main difference between postpartum depression and baby blues is in intensity and duration of the symptoms. Depression also often requires professional support.
Symptoms of baby blues usually resolve on their own within the first 2 weeks after you give birth. They also tend to appear at times, but they might not be constant in your day.
Like other types of depression, there’s still no consensus on the exact cause of postpartum depression.
Some researchers have proposed that it might be related to hormone levels. Some people might be more sensitive to the surge in hormones during pregnancy and the sudden dip in hormones right after giving birth.
But it’s likely that postpartum depression is caused by a specific combination of physical and emotional factors.
Some factors that may be associated with a higher probability of developing postpartum depression include:
- thyroid disorder or related conditions
- medical or family history of depression
- multiple pregnancies
- history of bipolar disorder or anxiety disorder
- weak support system or social isolation
- teen pregnancy
- preterm labor
- sleep deprivation
- grief or the recent loss of a loved one
- pregnancy and birth complications
- symptoms of depression during pregnancy
- alcohol and substance use
Because there are still many other things that can play a role, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that you’re screened for symptoms of depression during and after pregnancy, regardless of the presence of contributing factors.
Symptoms of postpartum psychosis usually appear within the first 2 weeks after childbirth but can also show up after a few months. They involve losing touch with reality.
Some postpartum psychosis symptoms are:
- hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that others don’t)
- rapid changes in mood and emotions, usually from one extreme to the opposite
- delusions (false beliefs)
- episodes of mania
- episodes of depression, similar to those of postpartum depression
- confusion and disorientation
- aggressive behavior
- refusal to sleep and eat
Postpartum psychosis requires immediate medical attention. With timely treatment you can find ways to manage your symptoms.
Postpartum depression can be treated. The sooner you find support, the sooner you can work on relieving some of the symptoms you’re experiencing.
If there’s an underlying condition that’s contributing to how you feel, your health team will want to address that first. For example, balancing your thyroid hormone levels.
When that’s done, talking to a mental health professional can also help.
In general, postpartum depression is often treated with:
- interpersonal psychotherapy
- cognitive behavioral therapy
- bright light therapy
- electroconvulsive therapy
- antidepressant medications
Are medications safe during this time?
You may wonder if you can take antidepressants if you’re breastfeeding. Even though not all antidepressants can be prescribed while you’re lactating, some of them have little risk of side effects for your baby.
Talking with a health professional can help you weigh the risks versus benefits of specific drugs. Including your baby’s pediatrician in this conversation can provide you with additional insight.
If left untreated, postpartum depression can last for months or years. With the right treatment, you can cope and start functioning better.
While the most effective way of treating postpartum depression requires the support of a health team, you can be an active participant in your recovery.
Sleep as much as you can
This is probably the most important thing you need to do after giving birth.
Research has suggested that poor sleep quality increases the risk for severe postpartum symptoms.
Health professionals recommend that every adult get at least 7 hours of sleep within a 24-hour period — which, as a new parent, is easier said than done.
To improve your sleep hygiene, you can:
- make sure your room is at a comfortable temperature and as dark as possible
- listen to relaxing music or nature sounds during the day and when trying to sleep
- avoid caffeine
If you’re having a hard time sleeping, consider talking to your doctor for additional ideas that work better for your specific situation. Consider leaning on your partner, family, and friends to get in a nap when you can.
Save time for yourself
Even though you might find it challenging at first, saving time for a few relaxation techniques, if possible, is one of the most effective ways to support your well-being.
Relaxation time can also include time to:
- shower or take a bath
- eat your favorite food
- watch an episode of your favorite series
- read a few pages of a nice book
- have a cup of tea
- watch a sunset
Ask and accept help from others
Asking for help doesn’t mean you’re failing or weak. It gives you the opportunity to get support and feel loved, which can also help you feel better in time.
You could ask a relative, neighbor, friend, or anyone else you trust to:
- stay around for 30 minutes while you take a relaxing bath or go for a walk
- help you prepare and pack meals for the new week, so you always have a meal at hand
- take a walk with you around your neighborhood
- join you on a video call just to chat
- pick up a few groceries or help you order them online
- watch your baby while you pamper yourself at a hair or nail salon
- run important errands for you
- bring their baby to spend some time together with yours
- help you find the information you need to make a decision (for example, finding a therapist online or printing a few questions to discuss with your doctor)
Don’t skip any meals
It may sound like an odyssey to get all three meals or more during a busy day. But eating regularly is very important for your health and your baby’s.
Grabbing a bite every few hours can help you take short breaks and keep your body alert and strong.
Although it’s important to indulge in your favorites once in a while, try to keep your diet full of fresh and healthy foods as well.
This may sound like the last thing you want right now. You may feel fatigued as it is with all the things you need to do. But taking at least 15 minutes each day to move freely and exercise can give your body the endorphins it needs to feel better.
You can find an easy at-home exercise routine, or just put your baby in the stroller and go for a walk.
The goal is to get your body in action every day for as long as you can.
Other ways you can exercise include:
- doing a few squats while heating a meal
- stretching on the floor while your baby is on the mat or sleeping
- doing a couple of lunges while you walk toward the bathroom
- dancing your way around your home
- joining a mommy-and-me class
Before doing any of these, or any other form of exercise, it might be a good idea to discuss with your health provider the best options for you.
Take some time, every hour, to just pause for 1–3 minutes, and breathe deeply. This is particularly important at times when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
To do this breathing exercise:
- Close your eyes or just focus on a wall, window, or anything else in the room.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose and hold for 3 seconds.
- Breathe out slowly through your mouth as you feel your back and shoulders relax.
- Take as many seconds to breathe in as to breathe out. For example, breathe in for a count of 5 seconds. Hold for 3 seconds. Breathe out for a count of 5 seconds.
- Repeat this exercise up to 10 times every time you do it.
Let the light in
If you can, try getting at least 30 minutes of sunshine every day (weather permitting). Remember to ask your baby’s pediatrician about the best ways to protect them from the sun.
It’s also important to let natural light come in through the windows during the day, and at times when you’re not trying to sleep.
If you feel getting sunshine every day is challenging, you may want to consider a light therapy box for artificial sunlight.
Postpartum depression is a formal condition that involves symptoms of depression after giving birth.
Thankfully, help is available and coping is possible.
No matter how intense your symptoms are, once you reach out for treatment, you’ll be on your way to mental wellness.
Here are some resources that can help you take the first step to feeling better: