Many parents experience postpartum depression. Here’s what it looks like and how it can be treated.
Postpartum depression is clinically defined as depression following the birth of a child that lasts at least two weeks and interferes with a parent’s ability to go about their daily tasks. About 14% of mothers and 4% of fathers experience postpartum depression, according to a 2010 study published in the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
Having a baby is physically grueling and can also be emotionally difficult. It’s not uncommon for parents to feel anxious, depressed and upset soon after giving birth. This is often called the “baby blues.” Symptoms may include crying for no obvious reason, having trouble eating and sleeping, and questioning their parenting ability. The baby blues usually disappear on their own within two weeks following the birth of a child even without treatment, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
But if those blue moods become more dominant, start interfering with the ability to go about daily tasks, and last longer than two weeks, they may be a sign of postpartum depression. “Depression or postpartum depression doesn’t resolve by itself. Typically, people need treatment to get better,” said Dr. Nancy Byatt, a professor and postpartum depression expert at University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.
People who are depressed, whether generally or postpartum, “can feel worthless, they can feel hopeless, they can feel helpless. They can also feel bad about themselves; they can feel guilty about things they have or haven’t done,” Byatt said. In postpartum depression, those feelings tend to be focused on or related to the baby, Byatt said. A parent with postpartum depression may feel like they’re a bad parent or that the baby would be better off with someone else. They may have to push to take care of the baby. They may even consider suicide, Byatt said.
People with the baby blues, in contrast, “can still function, they’re still able to do things. They’re not feeling bad about themselves. They don’t have suicidal thoughts,” she said.
For 2 out of 3 mothers who experience postpartum depression, the depression starts before the baby is born, Byatt said. One-third of mothers with postpartum depression are depressed before they become pregnant, and one-third of mothers with postpartum depression develop depression during pregnancy. For that reason, Byatt considers postpartum depression to fall under the umbrella of perinatal depression, which is depression that occurs at any point during pregnancy and up to one year after birth of the baby, she said.
Postpartum depression can make it harder for the parent and baby to bond, said Dr. Simone Vigod, a perinatal health researcher and chief of psychiatry at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, Ontario. There’s also some evidence that having a mother with untreated postpartum depression is associated with developmental delays and social-emotional problems in children, she added.
However it’s important that parents with postpartum depression don’t blame themselves for the potential harms that could result from the illness, Vigod told Live Science. “Depression is a medical illness. If people could just snap their fingers and snap out of it, I wouldn’t have a practice. Nobody chooses this, and nobody is just not working hard enough to make it better,” she said.
Postpartum depression affects the parent, first and foremost. “Having a depressive episode means that her mental health and well-being is impacted; it means that the experience of parenthood is impacted,” Vigod said. “And it opens the door, especially if it’s not treated, for having continued mental health issues or continued depression across the lifespan.”
Although suicide in mothers is rare, it’s one of the leading causes of death during pregnancy and the postpartum period in the U.S. and Canada, Vigod said. A 2017 study led by Vigod and published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that from 1994 to 2008, 1 out of every 19 women in Canada who died during pregnancy or up to one year after giving birth died by suicide, and that maternal suicide occurred at a rate of 2.58 suicides per 100,000 live births. From 2003 to 2007 in the U.S., maternal suicide during pregnancy or in the first year postpartum occurred at a rate of 2 suicides per 100,000 live births, according to a 2011 report published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.