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What it’s really like to have postpartum depression

Mom kissing her newborn

It’s okay to not be okay after giving birth. In fact, 1 in 9 new moms will experience postpartum depression — and its serious side effects. Here’s why it happens, the symptoms and how to find help.

Lauren Bedosky

By Lauren Bedosky

It’s common to feel a flood of emotions in the first couple of weeks after giving birth. And they may not all be as positive as you might have imagined. You might cry for no reason or feel restless, anxious and irritable. That is known as the “baby blues,” and it affects nearly 70% of new moms.

Postpartum depression (PPD) is not the same as the baby blues. It’s a mental health condition that affects 1 in 9 new moms, according to the Office on Women’s Health, and it can have serious mental and physical health effects. And PPD doesn’t only lower the mom’s quality of life — research suggests that it can affect the baby’s development, too.

While many of the symptoms of PPD can be similar to those of the baby blues, they usually last longer and are more severe. The baby blues tend to show up in the days after childbirth and usually go away 3 to 5 days after they start. But with PPD, untreated symptoms can last for years. And for some women, PPD can even begin during pregnancy — or up to a year after giving birth.

To get the full scoop on PPD, we turned to a mental health expert, as well as a mom who made it through. They explain the causes, the signs and symptoms to watch for, and the best available treatment options.

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What causes postpartum depression?

The body goes through so much during pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period. Experts think that extreme swings in hormone levels may lead to PPD, according to the Office on Women’s Health.

The sudden life change of having a baby to take care of can also play a major role. Feeling overwhelmed, having your sleep disrupted and stress can all contribute. What’s more, many moms feel grief over the loss of who they were before having a baby.

“A lot of moms expect that when they have a baby, they’re going to feel immediate joy and connection,” says Jessica Sorci. She specializes in treating mental health issues in pregnant and postpartum women at Family Tree Wellness in Campbell, California. “And that if they’re a ‘good mom,’ they’re going to instinctively know how to make their baby happy and healthy.”

But the reality can be pretty different than those expectations. “Moms can really fall into a space of feeling scared and sad, and then most of all, self-critical,” Sorci says. “And we see this as a real component of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.”

These feelings are common among new moms. But PPD is not a regular or expected part of motherhood. And it often doesn’t go away on its own.

What postpartum depression can feel like

Every mom’s journey with PPD will look different. For Marcella Mitchell, the symptoms didn’t start until about a year after the birth of her first child.

Mitchell, who asked to have her name changed for this article, faced breastfeeding struggles early on. Her pediatrician had concerns about the baby’s growth and recommended that Mitchell find another feeding solution. So she turned to pumping. “I was waking up every 3 hours to pump,” she recalls. “I would pump in the car, I would pump at work, I would pump at friends’ houses when we went for dinner.”

This routine lasted a full year. The schedule was grueling, and Mitchell lost a lot of weight in the process. But her outlook was generally positive. “Then one day I was sitting there and I thought, ‘It would be best if I disappeared. Everyone would be better if I went away,’” she says. “I’d never felt that before, and that’s when I felt like maybe I was pushing myself too far.”

It didn’t help that Mitchell was shamed by her lactation consultant and the moms in her support group. “I was coming from a big yoga community where it was all about ‘breast is best.’ You have to breastfeed, and if you don’t, there’s something wrong with you,” she says.

Mitchell assumed her mood would improve once she stopped pumping. But she couldn’t shake her depression. She thought it might be that she was simply unhappy at her job. Yet even leaving and starting her own business didn’t offer relief. It wasn’t until her daughter’s second birthday that it dawned on her: She was still holding on to unresolved feelings from that first year. That realization led her to seek help.

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How to tell if you have postpartum depression

Any new mom can develop PPD. And it can happen with your first pregnancy — or your fifth. What matters is that you monitor your own mental and physical health and speak up when you’re struggling. Having PPD does not mean you’re a bad mom. It just means you’re a mom who needs support.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, symptoms of PPD can include:

  • Feeling sad or depressed
  • Changes in appetite
  • Trouble sleeping, or sleeping too much
  • Increased fatigue
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating or making decisions
  • Lack of interest in the baby
  • Fear of harming the baby or oneself
  • Excessive crying
  • Difficulty bonding with the baby
  • Intense irritability
  • Hopelessness

Experts think that some moms may be at a higher risk of developing PPD. In particular, moms who:

  • Have a history of depression or other mood disorders
  • Are experiencing stressful life events in addition to their pregnancy
  • Don’t have the support of family and friends
  • Had a difficult pregnancy and/or birth experience

How postpartum depression is treated

Many women suffer in silence. But getting help for PPD is essential for the health of both mom and baby. Contact your doctor immediately if you experience several of the symptoms of PPD for more than 2 weeks — or if you have thoughts of death or suicide or fear of harming your baby.

PPD is often treated with medication, talk therapy or both.

There are different types of antidepressants you can take, and some can be taken while you’re breastfeeding. Your doctor can walk you through the options. They may include sertraline (Zoloft®), fluoxetine (Prozac®) or paroxetine (Paxil®).

Antidepressants can take several weeks to start working. That’s why it’s often a good idea to pair medication with talk therapy. Talking through your experiences with a mental health professional can help you learn how to cope with your feelings, solve problems and set realistic goals. Sorci recommends finding a therapist who specializes in perinatal mental health.

It’s an important time to lean on your support system, too. Here’s how your partner can support you after giving birth.

Mitchell was able to move past PPD with talk therapy alone. “The good thing the therapist did was give me permission to feel what I was feeling and not feel ashamed,” she says. “I was hard on myself because I didn’t have this instant connection with my child. I was so concerned about feeding her that I couldn’t really connect with her. Once I stopped feeling shame, like I had failed, things got better.”

PPD is a serious but treatable mental health condition. Remember: You do not have to suffer alone. And if you need medication to help PPD or another health condition, don’t forget to use your free prescription discount card. It could save you up to 80% at the pharmacy.


Additional sources
Background on postpartum depression: Office on Women’s Health
Symptoms of postpartum depression: American Psychiatric Association