Understanding Postnatal Depression

Updated May 17, 2019

Reviewer Kristen Hardin

The first thing you need to know about postnatal depression is that you are not a bad person and this does not mean that you do not love your child or that people will think you do not love your child. Postnatal depression is not uncommon and there are many factors that can cause it to happen and it is not your fault. Your body has been through dramatic physical, emotional, and hormonal changes. You are also adjusting to a major life change and are probably sleep deprived as well.

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The Difference Between Postnatal And Postpartum Depression

Postnatal depression and postpartum depression are not the same things. Postnatal depression is more commonly referred to as the "baby blues," while postpartum depression is more severe in symptom intensity and longer in duration. However, in neither case should you ignore what's going on.

Many moms feel confused or upset when they have depression after their child is born. They think this is supposed to be a happy time, so why am I feeling depressed? Maybe this wasn't what I wanted after all? Don't get stuck in this trap. Even a happy change is still a change. And it takes time to adjust to a change.

Causes of Postnatal Depression

It makes sense. Your body is going through a lot, so it's understandable if, once the massive process has completed, your hormones are haywire. You're dealing with adding a new little person to your home, losing sleep, and there is a big disruption in your routine. It's a lot to handle for anyone, let alone someone whose body is recovering from childbirth.

While the cause of postnatal depression is not entirely clear, experts believe that it is the result of hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy and after the baby is born. There are also several factors that may determine whether you are more susceptible to developing antenatal, postnatal, or postpartum depression, like:

  • A history of mental health issues, like depression
  • A history of mental health issues during prior pregnancies
  • The lack of a strong support network, including an unsupportive partner
  • A stressful life event, like the loss of a job or the death of a loved one
  • Health problems with your baby or problems breastfeeding
  • Financial struggles

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Symptoms of Postnatal and Postpartum Depression

The best way to tell whether you have postnatal or postpartum depression is to evaluate your symptoms. Postnatal depression usually sets in around the fourth or fifth day after you give birth, and it can last up to a few days or a few weeks. Over time, your symptoms will lessen, and you should be feeling better after about two weeks. Postpartum depression, however, can be more severe and last much longer.

The symptoms of postnatal depression ("baby blues") include:

  • Crying for what seems like no reason
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue or, ironically, insomnia
  • Mood changes
  • A lack of ability to concentrate

About 70 to 80 percent of all new moms experience the baby blues, postnatal depression. Some dads even experience it, too! If it does not pass on its own and is left untreated, though, baby blues can develop into something more serious: postpartum depression. The symptoms of postpartum depression include:

  • Feeling sad or overwhelmed
  • Feeling guilty or worthless
  • Thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby and difficulty bonding with your baby
  • Lack of appetite
  • Fatigued but unable to sleep
  • Withdrawing from friends and family

Because the symptoms of postpartum depression can widely vary, it is strongly recommended that a woman who experiences these symptoms speak with her doctor regarding treatment. Treatment typically includes therapy and sometimes medication to help manage the condition.

Antenatal Depression

You may not be familiar with antenatal depression, but this is another form of depression that happens with pregnancy. The difference here is that it occurs while you are still pregnant. Other than that, antenatal depression is the same thing as postnatal depression; the only difference is when they occur.

As with all other forms of depression, it is important that antenatal depression is treated if the signs are present. The presence of this form of depression in particular, however, can signal the development of more severe depression later on if left untreated.

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Experts believe that anywhere between seven and 20 percent of moms are affected by antenatal depression. Some moms believe that what they're going through is a normal part of the pregnancy process, but this and other forms of depression are not. That's why they should be treated as soon as symptoms present themselves. Your OBGYN is likely to ask you questions about how you are feeling. Be honest with her or him and let them help you decide what is to be expected as a part of pregnancy, and what is not, as it can be confusing to determine on your own.

Forms of Treatment

For a new mother, it's not always so easy to get out of the house. Now you have to worry about finding a babysitter on top of everything else. But if you're experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, it's important that you seek out help sooner rather than later. Here are some possible options for treatment.

Self-Treatment

You can start with some self-treatment to see if that helps. Try discussing what's bothering you with your partner, or another family member or friend. Let them know what they can do to help you, including letting you take some time for yourself for a bubble bath, a movie, whatever it is you need to get back on track and feel refreshed.

Rest whenever you can and sleep when your baby sleeps. It will be a little while before your baby has a "normal" sleeping schedule and he may sleep a lot during the day and less at night so it is important that you rest when you can so you are able to be awake when you baby is without being as sleep deprived.

Make sure you're eating right, too. Even if you have to make something quick in those early days of infancy, make sure that what you're making is healthy. Grab a banana instead of a candy bar, a protein bar instead of fast food.

It may be difficult to find the time, but exercise is also important. If the weather is nice, your baby will likely be very agreeable to resting in her stroller while you walk around the neighborhood. You can also do some gentle yoga while your baby naps. Your baby might also find it interesting to watch you do some gentle yoga from her swing or bouncy seat.

Therapy

If you've tried everything to help yourself and you're still not feeling any better, you may want to try professional therapy. A therapist can recommend a different course of coping skills or ideas, and it may just be helpful to have an objective professional there for you to vent your frustrations to and get some new perspectives.

Your therapist might also engage you in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This is a type of therapy where you essentially reprogram your brain so that you respond differently and more productively in certain situations.

For instance, maybe the sound of your baby's crying makes you feel stressed out, angry, or frustrated that you can't figure out what's wrong. Your therapist will help you retrain your mind to remember that when a baby cries, it's because he has no other way of telling you what's wrong and that something is bothering him. He's not just doing it to annoy you. He needs something, and this is the only way he can tell you.

Medication

Sometimes depression is the result of a chemical imbalance, and no matter how you try to fix it from the outside, you won't start feeling better unless you attack it from the inside. This is where medication comes in.

Your doctor may suggest medication in conjunction with the therapy so that you can attack the problem from multiple angles. Your doctor may prescribe medication to help you feel less anxious, or less sad. If you're breastfeeding and worried about taking something that you can pass to the baby in your milk, your doctor can recommend a medication that is considered safe to take during this time.

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Dispelled Myths About Postnatal Depression

Postnatal depression (the "baby blues") is just as serious as other forms of depression, so don't let anyone downplay what you're feeling or try to convince you to just "shake it off." There are so many things that go into the development of postnatal depression that it isn't possible to "shake it off."

While much research has been done on the matter, there is no evidence to suggest that you can control whether or not you develop postnatal depression. The best thing you can do for yourself while you're pregnant is to eat well, exercise, and maintain a healthy lifestyle (no smoking, no drugs, no drinking, etc.).

It is important to remember is that just because postnatal depression can go away within two weeks of giving birth, it doesn't always pass. If you notice your symptoms continuing or getting worse, then you should seek help before your condition gets any worse. Remember, you don't have to feel bad for any period of time even if it will pass in a few weeks. Talk to your OBGYN and be honest about how you feel. They are there to help you.

Are you struggling to cope with postnatal depression? Consider reaching out to one of our counselors at BetterHelp for assistance and help.


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