Pregnancy and childbirth are emotional, exciting, tiring and draining times for expectant mothers and everyone around them. For mom, it’s a time when elevated levels of hormones are rushing through her bloodstream and anxious thoughts about the new addition are running through her head. Experts say a new child is one of the two or three most stressful things a family can experience—right there with death, divorce and the loss of a job.
It’s no surprise, then, that the same experts say 80 percent of all new mothers go through some form of mood disorder—the “baby blues”—that includes mood swings, crying spells and sleeping and eating disruption. It’s a perfectly normal part of the childbirth process.
But according to the National Institute of Health, an 13 percent of new mothers experience more severe symptoms—ones that can be characterized as postpartum depression. Like any form of depression, postpartum depression is an extremely serious condition, and one that requires prompt and caring interaction with a health care provider. Untreated depression is leading cause of suicide. Postpartum depression risk factors include previously diagnosed depression, financial or relationship stress, lack of childcare support, a demanding newborn with sleep or crying issues, or an unintended pregnancy. Even if none of those risk factors exist, it’s important to watch for these warning signs:
- -Intense sadness with the inability to cry
- -Extreme exhaustion
- -Withdrawal from family and friends
- -Loss of interest in normal activities
- -Inconsolable low self esteem or feelings of hopelessness
- -Strong mood swings over a short period of time
- -Disengagement from parental care, or feeling that you’re incapable of caring for a new child
- -Inability to concentrate
- -Persistent lethargy or the inability to sleep
- -Irritability and the use of otherwise non-typical aggressive language
Experts stress that virtually every mother has moments when she’s overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for a new baby. Feeling exhausted from the lack of sleep that comes with a newborn waking up every two to three hours is completely normal. But postpartum depression sufferers experience symptoms like these regularly and consistently in the weeks and months just after childbirth. They’re more than isolated incidences.
If you think you’re suffering from postpartum depression, or you’re the partner, family member or friend of someone may be, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your pediatrician can connect you to professionals trained to help treat this condition. You can even reach out for advice and guidance from trained doctors online. The most important first step is to acknowledge that you’re feeling low and ask for help. Talk to your partner, family or friends. Try not to be so hard on yourself or expect perfection as a new mother—even if it isn’t your first child. The combination of stress, lack of sleep and hormonal changes pack a powerful punch, and it’s OK to need some time to catch your breath. If you have support from your partner, family or friends, take some time for yourself to rest, exercise or join a new mother’s support group. Getting outside and into circulation again can give you some quiet, calm and perspective.
One of the challenges with postpartum depression is that breastfeeding mothers can be limited in the medication they can potentially take, because the chemicals could pass through to the baby. If you’re breastfeeding, be sure to consult your pediatrician to determine what options may be available to you. Antidepressants fall into two main categories—selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and tricyclics. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors like fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil) and fluvoxamine (Luvox) are generally believed to be safe for breastfeeding women, as are some tricyclics like doxeprin. In addition to medication and treatment, mothers who improve their diet, nutrition and exercise habits before and after birth often see dramatic improvement in their mood.