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Experts are telling us that both that postpartum mood disorders are on the rise and that the causes for this are unknown; however it’s becoming clear that while a single cause is unknown, there are many factors that can contribute to postpartum mood disorders. It is our hope that by raising awareness of the factors that contribute to postpartum mood disorders (ranging from the baby blues to postpartum depression to postpartum psychosis), and opening the dialogue on the subject, more women will feel that they can ask for help and tragedies like Florence Leung’s suicide can be prevented.
What are postpartum mood disorders?
Scientifically speaking, the term postpartum mood disorder refers to any mood disorder that comes on in the year after a woman gives birth. Current estimates show that up to 85% of new mothers experience the mildest form, known as the ‘baby blues, which typically appears in the first week after birth and lasts a few weeks. However, for between 10 and 15% of new mothers, it either does not disappear at all, or does but then returns and intensifies between two and six months after delivery - this is called postpartum depression. An additional 0.2% of new mothers will experience the most intense form of postpartum mood disorders – postpartum psychosis.
What are the symptoms of postpartum depression?
Maternal postpartum depression is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual for medical professionals as displaying one or more of the following symptoms lasting for at least two weeks.
Feeling restless or slowed down
Feeling sad most of the day
Loss of interest or pleasure in all or most things, including the baby
Extreme irritability, frustration, or anger
Feelings of hopelessness
Trouble sleeping even when the baby is sleeping
Loss of appetite or eating too much
Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
Crying for no reason
Overwhelming feelings of guilt, worthlessness or inadequacy
Scary thoughts about harming your baby
Anxiety or panic attacks
No desire to be with friends or family
Excessive worrying about your baby’s health
Suicidal thoughts or frequent thoughts of death
What are the risk factors for postpartum depression?
There are a lot of different risk factors for postpartum depression. Like all mental health conditions, there is no single cause for postpartum depression, there isn’t any one thing a mother can do to prevent it from occurring, and having postpartum depression is not a sign of weakness or being a bad parent. Postpartum depression is a complication of childbirth not a moral failing. Risk factors for postpartum depression include:
A traumatic pregnancy or birth
Experience with emotionally painful or stressful experiences around pregnancy, childbirth and/or early parenting
A history of domestic violence, sexual or other abuse
A traumatic childhood
Lack of social support
Personality traits – such as competitiveness and perfectionism.
In today’s hyper-connected world, it’s easier than ever before to access information. While this access to information is great for finding out things like where to go to get support if you’re feeling depressed, it is a double edged sword because we are bombarded with stressful and negative images from around the world on a daily basis. Social media is great for connecting us with friends and relatives from around the world, but it can put pressure on new moms to keep up appearances and make them feel like a failure when their experience doesn’t match what their friends are living. The perfect image of a blissfully sleeping baby in a tidy house while mom cooks a nutritious dinner from scratch for a happy toddler? That is the exception rather than the rule and five minutes after the picture was taken the toddler probably threw a tantrum, refused to eat dinner, and woke up the baby – but we don’t see that and in a sleep deprived new mother those pictures can be yet another sign that she’s doing something wrong.
What should you do if you think you have postpartum depression?
First, take a deep breath. Recognizing that something isn’t right is an important first step. Other things you can do include:
Talk to your doctor, midwife, or other medical professional. Be honest about your feelings, and explain how they are affecting you.
Seek support. Find other new mothers either through in-person meetings or online groups or both. Having a support network of people who empathize and understand can be a huge help.
Ask for help. Maybe you need someone to watch the baby for an hour so you can do a yoga class and have a shower. Maybe you need someone to help you cook meals or walk the dog. Maybe you just want someone to hold the baby for a few minutes. Whatever it is you need, ask for help – and when people offer to help, let them.
Try to get some exercise and enough sleep. This is easier said than done with a newborn, but if you can, get your partner to take a shift between feedings while you nap. If you can’t get away to an exercise class, take a walk with the baby around the house or around the block if you can manage it.
Remember that it IS NOT YOUR FAULT. You are doing the best you can and that alone makes you a good mother.
Postpartum depression is not some mystical disease – it is a complication of childbirth and the more we talk about it and normalize it, the better we can support mothers who are suffering.