Postpartum depression is moderate to severe depression in a woman after she has given birth. It may occur soon after delivery or up to a year later. Most of the time, it occurs within the first 3 months after delivery.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Women commonly have mood changes during pregnancy, especially after delivery. These mood changes may be caused by changes in hormone levels. Many non-hormonal factors may also affect mood during this period:
Changes in your body from pregnancy and delivery
Changes in work and social relationships
Having less time and freedom for yourself
Lack of sleep
Worries about your ability as a mother
Feelings of anxiety, irritation, tearfulness, and restlessness are common in the week or two after pregnancy. These feelings are often called the postpartum or "baby blues." These symptoms almost always go away soon, without the need for treatment.
Postpartum depression may occur when the baby blues do not fade away or when signs of depression start 1 or more months after childbirth.
You may have a higher chance of postpartum depression if you:
Are under age 20
Currently abuse alcohol, take illegal substances, or smoke (these also cause serious medical health risks for the baby)
Did not plan the pregnancy, or had mixed feelings about the pregnancy
Had depression, bipolar disorder (for example, manic depression), or an anxiety disorder before your pregnancy, or with a previous pregnancy
Had a stressful event during the pregnancy or delivery, including personal illness, death or illness of a loved one, a difficult or emergency delivery, premature delivery, or illness or birth defect in the baby
Have a close family member who has had depression or anxiety
Have a poor relationship with your significant other or are single
Have financial problems (low income, inadequate housing)
Have little support from family, friends, or your significant other
The symptoms of postpartum depression are the same as the symptoms of depression that occurs at other times in life. Along with a sad or depressed mood, you may have some of the following symptoms:
Agitation or irritability
Changes in appetite
Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
Feeling withdrawn or unconnected
Lack of pleasure or interest in most or all activities
Loss of concentration
Loss of energy
Problems doing tasks at home or work
Negative feelings toward the baby
Thoughts of death or suicide
A mother with postpartum depression may also:
Be unable to care for herself or her baby
Be afraid to be alone with her baby
Have negative feelings toward the baby or even think about harming the baby (Although these feelings are scary, they are almost never acted on. Still you should tell your doctor about them right away.)
Worry intensely about the baby, or have little interest in the baby
Signs and tests
There is no single test to diagnose postpartum depression. Your doctor may have you complete a questionnaire (such as the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale) at your office visit to look for signs of depression or risks for depression.
Sometimes depression following pregnancy can be related to other medical conditions. Hypothyroidism, for example, causes symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, and depression. Women with postpartum depression should have blood tests to screen for medical causes of depression.
A new mother who has any symptoms of postpartum depression should take steps right away to get help.
Here are some other helpful tips:
Ask your partner, family, and friends for help with the baby's needs and in the home.
Don't hide your feelings. Talk about them with your partner, family, and friends.
Don't make any major life changes during pregnancy or right after giving birth.
Don't try to do too much, or to be perfect.
Make time to go out, visit friends, or spend time alone with your partner.
Rest as much as you can. Sleep when the baby is sleeping.
Talk with other mothers or join a support group.
The treatment for depression after birth often includes medication, therapy, or both.
If you are diagnosed with depression, you may need to be followed closely for at least 6 months.
There are several types of antidepressant medications that may be given to breastfeeding mothers, including paroxetine, sertraline, and nortriptyline.
Ask your doctor or nurse for a referral to a mental health therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT) are types of talk therapy that have been found effective for postpartum depression.
If you are thinking of harming yourself or your infant, seek immediate medical help.
If you are diagnosed with postpartum depression, support groups may be helpful, but they should not replace medication or individual psychotherapy (talk therapy).
Medication and professional psychotherapy can often successfully reduce or eliminate symptoms.
If left untreated, postpartum depression can last for months or years, and you may be at risk of harming yourself or your baby.
Pearlstein T, Howard M, Salisbury A, Zlotnick C. Postpartum depression. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2009;200:357-364.
ACOG Committee on Practice Bulletins--Obstetrics. ACOG Practice Bulletin: Clinical management guidelines for obstetrician-gynecologists number 92. Use of psychiatric medications during pregnancy and lactation. Obstet Gynecol. 2008;111:1001-1020.
David B. Merrill, MD, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, NY. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.