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Women's health

10 Postpartum Depression Symptoms and Triggers

Understanding how to identify postpartum depression symptoms is essential for the mental and physical well-being of both mom and baby.

10 Postpartum Depression Symptoms and Triggers

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When welcoming a new baby into the world, it's common to experience a spectrum of emotions, ranging from joy and excitement to nervousness and anxiety. What often gets overlooked is feelings of sadness, symptoms of poor sleep, irritability, mood swings, or struggle to connect with your baby.

This condition, known as postpartum depression, affects many women after childbirth. Understanding how to identify postpartum depression symptoms is essential for the mental and physical well-being of both the mother and the baby.

To understand the complexities of postpartum depression symptoms, we're turning to women's mental health care specialists Martine Rosenberg, LCSW and Elizabeth Baron, LMHC, for expert insights on identifying the signs of postpartum depression.

What is postpartum depression?

Postpartum depression is a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD) that affects mothers during the postpartum period. Baron explains that postpartum depression can also be classified as perinatal depression since it can impact women during pregnancy. She says, "Perinatal depression, by definition, is a major depressive disorder that occurs within the perinatal period, during pregnancy, and up to one year after giving birth."

Mothers may experience feelings of intense sadness and hopelessness and have difficulty coping with the new demands and responsibilities of parenthood. Postpartum depression can also disrupt sleep, appetite, and energy levels, impacting daily functioning, routines, and family life. In severe cases, and when left unaddressed, postpartum depression can trigger thoughts of suicide, self-harm, or even harming the baby.

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What triggers postpartum depression?

Many factors can cause postpartum depression. Rosenberg explains that a personal or family history of depression or mental illness, including depression and anxiety, can increase the risk of postpartum depression. She adds that women who experienced a PMAD from a previous pregnancy may have a higher chance of experiencing postpartum depression again. She says, "There is a 50-70% chance that these symptoms may occur in the future after a subsequent delivery."

Other risk factors include:

  • Hormonal changes
  • Emotional stress
  • Financial stress
  • Traumatic labor
  • Newborn NICU stay
  • Emotional and physical demands of caring for a newborn
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It's important to note that postpartum depression can affect any woman, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, income, culture, or educational background. Women should not be blamed for postpartum depression, nor is it triggered by anything she may or may not have done.

How long does postpartum depression last?

The duration of postpartum depression isn't standardized, and it varies from person to person. Baron explains, "Like all mental health issues and psychiatric disorders, postpartum depression looks different for each individual. Some women might experience it for a few weeks, while others can struggle for months."

Regardless of how long it lasts, seeking professional help as soon as you notice symptoms is essential. Licensed mental health professionals, OB/GYNs, and psychiatrists can diagnose and treat postpartum depression. Baron explains that these healthcare professions offer different approaches to mental health support, and choosing a provider that best aligns with your needs and personality is essential.

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What are typical postpartum symptoms?

After having a baby, it's common to experience a strong range of emotions, such as overwhelm, fatigue, and anxiety. Hormonal shifts occur post-pregnancy as your body and hormones begin to regulate and revert back to your pre-pregnancy self. Mood swings are normal, and you may feel happy one moment and easily irritated the next.

It's important to recognize that these feelings are typical during the postpartum phase and are different from postpartum depression. Baron emphasizes, "Overwhelm, stress, and feelings of isolation are "normal symptoms" we know women experience every day while they are transitioning into and through motherhood."

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Mild and short-term "baby blues" are considered normal and may persist during the first two weeks after birth; as Baron explains, "Many mothers during this time feel exhausted, depleted, and like they have lost a part of themselves." However, if feelings of anxiety and sadness are more severe and persist beyond two weeks postpartum, it's usually a sign of postpartum depression.

10 postpartum depression symptoms

Below are some of the symptoms of postpartum depression to look out for:

Difficulty concentrating

A woman experiencing postpartum depression might find it challenging to focus on everyday activities. Rosenberg explains that this can extend to simple tasks and household chores, whether because she's constantly distracted or can't find the energy to begin.

Feelings of helplessness

Acknowledging the challenges of motherhood can be incredibly difficult. For mothers grappling with postpartum depression, the realization that motherhood doesn't align with their expectations can be particularly hard to accept. According to Rosenberg, many new moms feel helpless about expressing their emotions and worry that they are incapable of meeting the demands of motherhood.

Fatigue and poor sleep

Women dealing with postpartum depression are consistently plagued by worry and anxiety, often leading to trouble sleeping. They may find themselves in a constant state of exhaustion, making it difficult to function throughout the day. They may wake up from a nap and still feel tired.

Poor appetite

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Experiencing intense feelings of sadness or anxiety can easily lead to forgetting about meals, which may affect appetite and weight.

Severe sadness

Postpartum depression can profoundly impact mood and everyday functioning. According to Rosenberg, severe sadness may manifest as frequent bouts of crying throughout the day, with persistent worry and anxiety. There may be a loss of interest in daily activities or caring for your baby's needs. Baron explains, "They feel like the glass is always half-empty, and they often lose perspective about why they had a baby in the first place."

new mom looking tired and upset

Trouble bonding with your baby

Baron describes postpartum depression as all-consuming, and it can completely overwhelm a mother. Moms may struggle to engage with or care for their baby, finding it hard to connect emotionally or feel attached to their child.

Persistent anxiety

Women may find themselves consumed by worry and stressed over small matters like whether they've changed the baby's diaper correctly or safety concerns like whether or not the baby was put on their back to sleep. These anxieties can dominate their thoughts throughout the day, impacting all aspects of daily life.

Irritability

Women experiencing postpartum depression may find themselves becoming irritable very quickly, either without any apparent reason or over minor matters.

Doubts about being a parent

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Navigating parenthood with postpartum depression can lead to self-doubt about one's parenting abilities. Baron explains how many women struggle with the pressure of being a perfect parent, often battling perfectionism. For moms experiencing postpartum depression, these feelings can affect normal functioning and impact their self-confidence and resilience, and stir up feelings of guilt.

Thoughts of death, self-harm, or harming your baby

Baron explains that some women experiencing postpartum depression may also have intrusive thoughts —unwanted images or ideas, including frightening thoughts of harming your baby or suicidal ideation. Baron clarifies that postpartum depression is different from postpartum psychosis, which demands urgent medical intervention. She says, "Postpartum psychosis is a rare but severe condition marked by hallucinations, delusions, and disorganized thinking, a state in which they are more likely to harm themselves and their baby."

If you or someone you love is experiencing any of these symptoms, they must seek help from a medical professional. With the right support, both mom and baby can flourish.

Experts

  • Martine Rosenberg, LCSW, is a psychotherapist who specializes in women's mental health issues such as infertility, pregnancy, and the transition to motherhood.
  • Elizabeth Baron, LMHC, is a psychotherapist with a primary focus on maternal mental health and specializes in treating PMADs.

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