Women have a much higher lifetime risk of depression than men do, and a significant factor in this level of risk is the hormonal changes that occur during and after pregnancy. While post-natal depression—and depression in general—can run in families, there's no way to predict for sure whether a woman will develop the condition. Therefore it's good to be aware of what the signs and symptoms are, to make it easier to get help if it becomes necessary.
When the Baby Blues Turns into Something More
Many women experience mild and temporary depression symptoms after having a child. This condition is known as the baby blues, and it affects up to 80% of women who give birth. For most women, the symptoms are very mild, and last only a few days or a week. Women who experience the baby blues typically feel weepy, anxious, or irritable, and may also have mild mood swings. Of women who experience the baby blues, around 20% go on to develop a more severe form called post-natal depression.
Why do Women develop Depression After Giving Birth?
Women experience large and sometimes rapid changes in hormone levels during pregnancy and after giving birth to a child. In particular, levels of estrogen and progesterone increase to very high levels during pregnancy, but drop rapidly to pre-pregnancy levels in the few days immediately a woman gives birth. These changes in hormone levels are so quick that it takes time for the body to adjust, and it's thought that this period of adjustment is the reason why women develop the baby blues. In some cases, however, this mild and transient episode triggers a more serious and prolonged depression. When this happens it's referred to as post-natal depression, a condition that can linger for several weeks or months. Women are more likely to develop post-natal depression if they've had episodes of depression in the past, if other family members have been affected by depression, or if they've experienced other significant life events or problems during their pregnancy.
Signs of Post-Natal Depression
The signs of post-natal depression closely mimic those of other forms of depression, with symptoms including feelings of sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness, anxiety, guilt, and shame; changes in sleeping patterns such as insomnia; difficulty concentrating; and suicidal thoughts. Women who develop post-natal depression may also have trouble bonding with their baby, and this can contribute further to the problem.
Treatment for Post-Natal Depression
Around four-fifths of women experience the baby blues, and this mild form of depression is absolutely normal; however, if the symptoms lasts for longer than ten days or become more severe, a woman is at risk of developing post-natal depression. At this point, it's important to seek support and treatment to enable recovery.
Treatment for depression commonly includes therapy and medication; however, women who are breastfeeding have fewer options for anti-depressant medication due to the risk of the medications being secreted in breast milk. There are a few anti-depressants that are safe for breastfeeding women to take, so breastfeeding women do have some options.
Studies also show that women who breastfeed are less likely to develop post-natal depression, so if you are able to breastfeed it's good to do so. For this reason, doctors don't usually recommend women stop breastfeeding in order to take anti-depressant medication, unless the depression is extremely severe and doesn't respond to other forms of treatment. But remember, if you're not able to breastfeed for any reason, there's absolutely no need to feel guilty, or to worry that your baby's health might be negatively affected. There are definitely benefits to breastfeeding, but babies who are bottle-fed thrive just as well as those who are breastfed.
Support and Self Care
Just as there's no single “right” way to be a parent, there's no “right” way to recover from post-natal depression—it's different for everyone. Some women are able to get through it with family support and therapy, while other women need to take medication for a while. Throughout the depression and treatment, it's important to remember that post-natal depression is nobody's fault, and experiencing this illness doesn't make a woman a bad mother. This is a crucial part of self care, but it's also important to make sure that new parents get plenty of support and help from friends and family, and that a new mother is able to take time out for self care to help her get through those emotional first few days.
Adam Slevin. “Breastfeeding with Postpartum Depression.” Accessed March 4, 2015.
Katherine Stone. “Postpartum Depression Support Organizations.” Accessed March 4, 2015.
Jan Oystein Berle and Olav Spigset (2011). “Anti-depressant Use During Breastfeeding.” In Current Women's Health Review Feb; 7(1): 28-32. Accessed March 4, 2015.
Office on Women's Health. “Depression during and after pregnancy fact sheet.” Accessed March 4, 2015.