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Postpartum depression

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Nov 24, 2022.

Overview

The birth of a baby can start a variety of powerful emotions, from excitement and joy to fear and anxiety. But it can also result in something you might not expect — depression.

Most new moms experience postpartum "baby blues" after childbirth, which commonly include mood swings, crying spells, anxiety and difficulty sleeping. Baby blues usually begin within the first 2 to 3 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. Sometimes it's called peripartum depression because it can start during pregnancy and continue after childbirth. Rarely, an extreme mood disorder called postpartum psychosis also may develop after childbirth.

Postpartum depression is not 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 help you bond with your baby.

Symptoms

Symptoms of depression after childbirth vary, and they can range from mild to severe.

Baby blues symptoms

Symptoms of baby blues — which last only a few days to a week or two after your baby is born — may include:

Postpartum depression symptoms

Postpartum depression may be mistaken for baby blues at first — but the symptoms are more intense and last longer. These may eventually interfere 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 they may begin earlier — during pregnancy — or later — up to a year after birth.

Postpartum depression symptoms may include:

Untreated, postpartum depression may last for many months or longer.

Postpartum psychosis

With postpartum psychosis — a rare condition that usually develops within the first week after delivery — the symptoms are severe. Symptoms may include:

Postpartum psychosis may lead to life-threatening thoughts or behaviors and requires immediate treatment.

Postpartum depression in the other parent

Studies show that new fathers can experience postpartum depression, too. They may feel sad, tired, overwhelmed, anxious, or have changes in their usual eating and sleeping patterns. These are the same symptoms that mothers with postpartum depression experience.

Fathers who are young, have a history of depression, experience relationship problems or are struggling financially are most at risk of postpartum depression. Postpartum depression in fathers — sometimes called paternal postpartum depression — can have the same negative effect on partner relationships and child development as postpartum depression in mothers can.

If you're a partner of a new mother and are having symptoms of depression or anxiety during your partner's pregnancy or after your child's birth, talk to your health care provider. Similar treatments and supports provided to mothers with postpartum depression can help treat postpartum depression in the other parent.

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 primary health care provider or your obstetrician or gynecologist and schedule an appointment. If you have symptoms that suggest you may have postpartum psychosis, get help immediately.

It's important to call your provider as soon as possible if the symptoms of depression have any of these features:

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. Call 911 or your local emergency assistance number to get help.

Also consider these options if you're having suicidal thoughts:

Helping a friend or loved one

People with depression may not recognize or admit 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.

Causes

There is no single cause of postpartum depression, but genetics, physical changes and emotional issues may play a role.

Risk factors

Any new mom can experience postpartum depression and it can develop after the birth of any child, not just the first. However, your risk increases if:

Complications

Left untreated, postpartum depression can interfere with mother-child bonding and cause family problems.

Prevention

If you have a history of depression — especially postpartum depression — tell your health care provider if you're planning on becoming pregnant or as soon as you find out you're pregnant.

Diagnosis

Your health care provider will usually talk with you about your feelings, thoughts and mental health to help determine if you have a short-term case of postpartum baby blues or a more severe form of depression. Don't be embarrassed — postpartum depression is common. Share your symptoms with your provider so that you and your provider can create a useful treatment plan.

As part of your evaluation, your health care provider may do a depression screening, including having you fill out a questionnaire. Your provider may order other tests, if needed, to rule out other causes for your symptoms.

Treatment

Treatment and recovery time vary, depending on how severe your depression is and what your individual needs are. If you have an underactive thyroid or an underlying illness, your health care provider may treat those conditions or refer you to the appropriate specialist. Your health care provider may also refer you to a mental health professional.

Baby blues

The baby blues usually fade on their own within a few days to 1 to 2 weeks. In the meantime:

Postpartum depression

Postpartum depression is often treated with psychotherapy — also called talk therapy or mental health counseling — medicine or both.

Brexanolone (Zulresso) is the first drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration specifically for postpartum depression in adult women. Brexanolone slows the rapid drop of certain hormones after childbirth that may lead to postpartum depression. Potential serious side effects require a stay in a health care facility and monitoring by a health care provider while receiving the medicine through a vein over 60 hours. Because of this, the treatment is not yet widely available.

Research continues on an oral medicine for postpartum depression with promising results. The medicine being studied works in a way similar to brexanolone. But it could be taken daily as a pill and may not have the same serious side effects.

With appropriate treatment, postpartum depression symptoms usually improve. In some cases, postpartum depression can continue and become long term, which is called 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

Postpartum psychosis requires immediate treatment, usually in the hospital. Treatment may include:

A hospital stay during treatment for postpartum psychosis can challenge a mother's ability to breastfeed. This separation from the baby makes breastfeeding difficult. Your health care provider can recommend support for lactation — the process of producing breast milk — while you're in the hospital.

Lifestyle and home remedies

In addition to professional treatment, you can do some things for yourself that build on your treatment plan and help speed recovery.

Remember, taking care of your baby includes taking care of yourself.

Coping and support

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 your health care provider. Ask your provider or a 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.

Preparing for an appointment

After your first appointment, your health care provider may refer you to a mental health provider who can create the right treatment plan with you. You may want to find a trusted family member or friend to join you for your appointment to help you remember all the information discussed.

What you can do

Before your appointment, make a list of:

Questions to ask may include:

Don't hesitate to ask any other questions during your appointment.

What to expect from your doctor

Your health care provider or mental health provider may ask you some questions, such as:

Your provider may ask additional questions based on your responses, symptoms and needs. Preparing for questions will help you make the most of your appointment.

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