The birth of a baby can trigger a jumble of powerful emotions, from excitement and joy to fear and anxiety. But it can also result in something you might not expect — depression.
Many new moms experience the "postpartum baby blues" after childbirth, which commonly include mood swings, crying spells, anxiety and difficulty sleeping. Baby blues typically begin within the first two to three days after delivery, and may last for up to two weeks.
But some new moms experience a more severe, long-lasting form of depression known as postpartum depression. Rarely, an extreme mood disorder called postpartum psychosis also may develop after childbirth.
Postpartum depression isn't a character flaw or a weakness. Sometimes it's simply a complication of giving birth. If you have postpartum depression, prompt treatment can help you manage your symptoms — and enjoy your baby.
Signs and symptoms of depression after childbirth vary, and they can range from mild to severe.
Postpartum baby blues symptoms
Signs and symptoms of baby blues — which last only a few days to a week or two after your baby is born — may include:
- Mood swings
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Reduced concentration
- Appetite problems
- Trouble sleeping
Postpartum depression symptoms
Postpartum depression may be mistaken for baby blues at first — but the signs and symptoms are more intense and last longer, eventually interfering with your ability to care for your baby and handle other daily tasks. Symptoms usually develop within the first few weeks after giving birth, but may begin later — up to six months after birth.
Postpartum depression symptoms may include:
- Depressed mood or severe mood swings
- Excessive crying
- Difficulty bonding with your baby
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Loss of appetite or eating much more than usual
- Inability to sleep (insomnia) or sleeping too much
- Overwhelming fatigue or loss of energy
- Reduced interest and pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
- Intense irritability and anger
- Fear that you're not a good mother
- Feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt or inadequacy
- Diminished ability to think clearly, concentrate or make decisions
- Severe anxiety and panic attacks
- Thoughts of harming yourself or your baby
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
Untreated, postpartum depression may last for many months or longer.
With postpartum psychosis — a rare condition that typically develops within the first week after delivery — the signs and symptoms are even more severe. Signs and symptoms may include:
- Confusion and disorientation
- Obsessive thoughts about your baby
- Hallucinations and delusions
- Sleep disturbances
- Attempts to harm yourself or your baby
Postpartum psychosis may lead to life-threatening thoughts or behaviors and requires immediate treatment.
When to see a doctor
If you're feeling depressed after your baby's birth, you may be reluctant or embarrassed to admit it. But if you experience any symptoms of postpartum baby blues or postpartum depression, call your doctor and schedule an appointment. If you have symptoms that suggest you may have postpartum psychosis, get help immediately.
It's important to call your doctor as soon as possible if the signs and symptoms of depression have any of these features:
- Don't fade after two weeks
- Are getting worse
- Make it hard for you to care for your baby
- Make it hard to complete everyday tasks
- Include thoughts of harming yourself or your baby
If you have suicidal thoughts
If at any point you have thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, immediately seek help from your partner or loved ones in taking care of your baby and call 911 or your local emergency assistance number to get help.
Also consider these options if you're having suicidal thoughts:
- Call your mental health specialist.
- Call a suicide hotline number — in the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
- Seek help from your primary doctor or other health care provider.
- Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
- Contact a minister, spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community.
Helping a friend or loved one
People with depression may not recognize or acknowledge that they're depressed. They may not be aware of signs and symptoms of depression. If you suspect that a friend or loved one has postpartum depression or is developing postpartum psychosis, help them seek medical attention immediately. Don't wait and hope for improvement.
There's no single cause of postpartum depression, but physical and emotional issues may play a role.
- Physical changes. After childbirth, a dramatic drop in hormones (estrogen and progesterone) in your body may contribute to postpartum depression. Other hormones produced by your thyroid gland also may drop sharply — which can leave you feeling tired, sluggish and depressed.
- Emotional issues. When you're sleep deprived and overwhelmed, you may have trouble handling even minor problems. You may be anxious about your ability to care for a newborn. You may feel less attractive, struggle with your sense of identity or feel that you've lost control over your life. Any of these issues can contribute to postpartum depression.
Postpartum depression can develop after the birth of any child, not just the first. The risk increases if:
- You have a history of depression, either during pregnancy or at other times
- You have bipolar disorder
- You had postpartum depression after a previous pregnancy
- You have family members who've had depression or other mood stability problems
- You've experienced stressful events during the past year, such as pregnancy complications, illness or job loss
- Your baby has health problems or other special needs
- You have difficulty breast-feeding
- You're having problems in your relationship with your spouse or significant other
- You have a weak support system
- You have financial problems
- The pregnancy was unplanned or unwanted
Left untreated, postpartum depression can interfere with mother-child bonding and cause family problems.
- For mothers. Untreated postpartum depression can last for months or longer, sometimes becoming a chronic depressive disorder. Even when treated, postpartum depression increases a woman's risk of future episodes of major depression.
- For fathers. Postpartum depression can have a ripple effect, causing emotional strain for everyone close to a new baby. When a new mother is depressed, the risk of depression in the baby's father may also increase. And new dads are already at increased risk of depression, whether or not their partner is affected.
- For children. Children of mothers who have untreated postpartum depression are more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems, such as sleeping and eating difficulties, excessive crying, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Delays in language development are more common as well.
After your first appointment, your doctor may refer you to a mental health provider who can create the right treatment plan for you. You may want to find a trusted family member or friend to join you for your appointment to help you remember all of the information discussed.
What you can do
Before your appointment, make a list of:
- Any symptoms you've been experiencing and for how long
- All of your medical issues, including physical conditions or mental health disorders, such as depression
- All the medications you take, including prescription and over-the-counter medications as well as vitamins and other supplements, as well as their doses
- Questions to ask your doctor
Questions to ask your doctor include:
- What is my diagnosis?
- What treatments are likely to help me?
- What are the possible side effects of the treatments you're proposing?
- How much and how soon do you expect my symptoms to improve with treatment?
- Is the medication you're prescribing safe to take while breast-feeding?
- How long will I need to be treated?
- What lifestyle changes can help me manage my symptoms?
- How often should I be seen for follow-up visits?
- Am I at increased risk of other mental health problems?
- Am I at risk of this condition recurring if I have another baby?
- Is there any way to prevent a recurrence if I have another baby?
- Are there any printed materials that I can have? What websites do you recommend?
Don't hesitate to ask other questions.
What to expect from your doctor
A doctor or mental health provider who sees you for possible postpartum depression may ask:
- What are your symptoms, and when did they start?
- Have your symptoms been getting better or worse over time?
- Are your symptoms affecting your ability to care for your baby?
- Do you feel as bonded to your baby as you expected?
- Are you able to sleep when you have the chance and get out of bed when it's time to wake up?
- How would you describe your energy level?
- Has your appetite changed?
- How often would you say you feel anxious, irritable or angry?
- Have you had any thoughts of harming yourself or your baby?
- How much support do you have in caring for your baby?
- Are there other significant stressors in your life, such as financial or relationship problems?
- Have you been diagnosed with any other medical conditions?
- Have you ever been diagnosed with any mental health conditions, such as depression or bipolar disorder? If so, what type of treatment helped the most?
Your doctor will usually talk with you about your feelings, thoughts and mental health to distinguish between a short-term case of postpartum baby blues and a more severe form of depression. Don't be embarrassed. Share your symptoms with your doctor so that a useful treatment plan can be created for you.
As part of your evaluation, your doctor may:
- Ask you to complete a depression-screening questionnaire
- Order blood tests to determine whether an underactive thyroid is contributing to your signs and symptoms
- Order other tests, if warranted, to rule out other causes for your symptoms
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, is often used by mental health providers to diagnose mental conditions and by insurance companies to reimburse for treatment.
Treatment and recovery time vary, depending on the severity of your depression and your individual needs. If you have an underactive thyroid or an underlying illness, your doctor may treat those conditions or refer you to the appropriate specialist. Your doctor also may refer you to a mental health provider.
The baby blues usually fade on their own within a few days to one to two weeks. In the meantime:
- Get as much rest as you can
- Accept help from family and friends
- Connect with other new moms
- Create time to take care of yourself
- Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs, which can make mood swings worse
Postpartum depression is often treated with psychotherapy (also called talk therapy or mental health counseling), medication or both.
- Psychotherapy. It may help to talk through your concerns with a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health provider. Through therapy, you can find better ways to cope with your feelings, solve problems, set realistic goals and respond to situations in a positive way. Sometimes family or relationship therapy also helps.
- Antidepressants. Your doctor may recommend an antidepressant. If you're breast-feeding, any medication you take will enter your breast milk. However, some antidepressants can be used during breast-feeding with little risk of side effects for your baby. Work with your doctor to weigh the potential risks and benefits of specific antidepressants.
With appropriate treatment, postpartum depression usually goes away within six months. In some cases, postpartum depression lasts much longer, becoming chronic depression. It's important to continue treatment after you begin to feel better. Stopping treatment too early may lead to a relapse.
Postpartum psychosis requires immediate treatment, often in the hospital. Treatment may include:
- Medication. When your safety is assured, a combination of medications — such as antidepressants, antipsychotic medications and mood stabilizers — may be used to control your signs and symptoms.
- Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). If your postpartum depression is severe and does not respond to medication, ECT may be recommended. During ECT, a small amount of electrical current is applied to your brain to produce brain waves similar to those that occur during a seizure. The chemical changes triggered by the electrical currents can reduce the symptoms of psychosis and depression, especially when other treatments have failed.
Treatment for postpartum psychosis can challenge a mother's ability to breast-feed. Separation from the baby makes breast-feeding difficult, and some medications used to treat postpartum psychosis aren't recommended for women who are breast-feeding. If you're experiencing postpartum psychosis, your doctor can help you work through these challenges.
Postpartum depression isn't generally a condition that you can treat on your own — but you can do some things for yourself that build on your treatment plan and help speed recovery.
- Make healthy lifestyle choices. Include physical activity, such as a walk with your baby, in your daily routine. Try to get adequate rest. Eat healthy foods and avoid alcohol.
- Set realistic expectations. Don't pressure yourself to do everything. Scale back your expectations for the perfect household. Do what you can and leave the rest.
- Make time for yourself. If you feel like the world is coming down around you, take some time for yourself. Get dressed, leave the house, and visit a friend or run an errand. Or schedule some time alone with your partner.
- Avoid isolation. Talk with your partner, family and friends about how you're feeling. Ask other mothers about their experiences. Breaking the isolation may help you feel human again.
- Ask for help. Try to open up to the people close to you and let them know you need help. If someone offers to baby-sit so you can take a break, take them up on it. If you can sleep, take a nap, or maybe you can catch a movie or meet for coffee with friends.
Remember, the best way to take care of your baby is to take care of yourself.
The already stressful, exhausting period following a baby's birth is more difficult when depression occurs. But remember, postpartum depression is never anyone's fault. It's a common medical condition that needs treatment.
So, if you're having trouble coping with postpartum depression, talk with a therapist. Ask your doctor or therapist about local support groups for new moms or women who have postpartum depression.
The sooner you get help, the sooner you'll be fully equipped to cope with depression and enjoy your new baby.
If you have a history of depression — especially postpartum depression — tell your doctor if you're planning on becoming pregnant or as soon as you find out you're pregnant.
- During pregnancy, your doctor can monitor you closely for signs and symptoms of depression. He or she may have you complete a depression-screening questionnaire during your pregnancy and after delivery. Sometimes mild depression can be managed with support groups, counseling or other therapies. In other cases, antidepressants may be recommended — even during pregnancy.
- After your baby is born, your doctor may recommend an early postpartum checkup to screen for signs and symptoms of postpartum depression. The earlier it's detected, the earlier treatment can begin. If you have a history of postpartum depression, your doctor may recommend antidepressant treatment or psychotherapy immediately after delivery.