Welcoming a new baby is supposed to be one of the most joyful moments in a mother’s life. But some mothers face a reality that differs dramatically from the idealized version of motherhood. In fact, it is common for new parents to experience a variety of overwhelming emotions that leave them feeling depleted and depressed.
“It is understandable why new mothers feel this way,” says Deval Zaveri, MD, Director of the Women’s Mental Health Program at Sheppard Pratt. “All of a sudden, mothers are tasked with the responsibility of caring for a newborn, which disrupts their sleep, reduces the time they have for self-care habits, and may even add stress to their relationship with their partner. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation, in addition to the hormonal changes of pregnancy and childbirth, can impact a new mom’s mood.”
It is common for new mothers to experience feelings of sadness, irritability, anxiety, inadequacy, and self-doubt when it comes to caring for newborns. Almost 85 percent of new mothers suffer from postpartum blues, commonly referred to as the “baby blues.” Fortunately, for most women, these feelings gradually subside within two weeks after birth. But for some moms, these feelings persist. They may be experiencing something more serious: Postpartum depression.
What Is Postpartum Depression?
Postpartum depression is a mood disorder that typically begins within four weeks of childbirth, occurring in almost 10–20 percent of women after delivery. The symptoms of postpartum depression are similar to those of depression and may include extreme sadness, crying, irritability, and changes in sleep patterns or appetite. Mothers with postpartum depression may have prominent anxiety. In some cases, they may develop thoughts of harming themselves or their infant.
“Postpartum depression is a serious mental illness,” explains Dr. Zaveri. “One way postpartum depression differs from depression is that individuals with postpartum depression often have frequent intrusive thoughts and obsessions about their own or their baby’s well-being. It is common for a woman with postpartum depression to frequently have feelings of self-doubt and question her adequacy as a mother.”
Who Experiences Postpartum Depression?
Women from all ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds can experience postpartum depression. However, there are some factors that indicate a greater risk for developing postpartum depression:
- A history of depression
- Presence of depression or anxiety during pregnancy
- A previous postpartum depression episode
- Family history of postpartum depression
- Being in the midst of stressful life events
- Lack of a strong support system
- Financial strain
How Is Postpartum Depression Treated?
Postpartum depression is treatable, and there are a variety of treatment options available for women who suffer from postpartum depression. First, Dr. Zaveri says that prevention is key. A postpartum depression diagnosis can be easily missed.
“It is recommended that all women be screened for symptoms at least once during their pregnancy, following childbirth, and during pediatric visits for the newborn. Those who screen positive should get a referral for appropriate mental health care. Ideally, we want to monitor women with a history of depression or other risk factors more carefully throughout their pregnancy and postpartum period. If we can intervene early, we may limit their symptoms of postpartum depression,” says Dr. Zaveri.
For women with less severe postpartum depression symptoms, individual psychotherapy and supportive group therapy may be enough to improve their symptoms.
“Working with a therapist can help a woman identify her support system and develop coping and stress management skills,” says Dr. Zaveri. “Also, there are many support groups available for new mothers that can really be a lifeline.”
Finally, women with moderate to severe postpartum depression may require consultation with a psychiatrist and may need psychiatric medications. Medications can improve mood, other symptoms, and overall well-being.
Postpartum Depression and You
If you suspect that you or a loved one is experiencing postpartum depression, the first step is to reach out to seek help. Your Ob/Gyn, baby’s pediatrician, or primary care provider will be able to connect you with a mental health professional who can give you a full assessment and develop a treatment plan. Sheppard Pratt also offers crisis care through our in-person and virtual Psychiatric Urgent Care programs.
“The most important thing to remember is that postpartum depression is no one’s fault,” says Dr. Zaveri. “It is a medical condition, and it is treatable. With appropriate support and mental health care, mothers can experience more joy and fulfillment in their new role as a parent.” ￼
Mental Health & Pregnancy
Other psychiatric conditions can occur during and after pregnancy, such as postpartum anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and postpartum psychosis. Postpartum psychosis is a serious mental disorder that can affect mothers during the postpartum period, causing detachment from reality. Symptoms may include hallucinations, delusions, and agitation. It is associated with a high risk of self-harm and harm to the infant. It is a psychiatric emergency. Contact a mental health professional immediately if you or a loved one may be experiencing postpartum psychosis.
About the Women’s Mental Health Program at Sheppard Pratt
We are pleased to announce that Sheppard Pratt is launching a new Women’s Mental Health Program. This new program will provide expert evaluation and consultation to women who are suffering from psychiatric symptoms that may have arisen due to pregnancy, childbirth, the postpartum period, and menopause. By working closely with local OB/GYN providers, the Women’s Health Program seeks to create collaborative and integrated services between psychiatry and OB/GYN care.