Postpartum Depression: What It Looks Like & How to Help Yourself (or your loved one)

Postpartum depression, also known as PPD, is depression that occurs after childbirth. It’s not talked about as much as it probably should and, in some circles, it’s not talked about at all. Women are expected to “bounce back” from childbirth as quickly as possible – both physically and emotionally.

PPD is very common, however. It currently affects more than 3 million new moms in the United States alone, and these are just diagnosed cases. There are most certainly other cases of women suffering alone who have not been diagnosed.

Usually, PPD is considered a temporary situation that can be treated by a medical professional and will resolve in a few months. The problem is when women do not get properly diagnosed and they suffer in silence. They may be misdiagnosed or told it will pass. They may throw themselves into every natural remedy known without relief. Sometimes, there is just more to it, like hormonal changes that need to be diagnosed and properly treated by a medical professional.

Postpartum depression affected me following the birth of each of my children. However, even though I had experienced postpartum depression with the birth of my first child, I had no idea how bad it could truly get until I had my second child. And while I’m sure the stress of having two young children, problems with breastfeeding (again), and lack of sleep contributed to the terrible feelings I had, the hormonal shift also played a huge role.

But, I’ll get into this more later. For now, let’s talk about why diagnosing and treating PPD early is so important. For one, those who develop PPD are at a greater risk for getting major depression later on in life. It can also impact some new moms’ abilities to bond with their babies from an early age. In extreme cases, it can lead to self-harm or suicide.

This is not something that should be shrugged off. This is not something you should just “wait to pass.” It’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of PPD in yourself and those you love so treatment can happen. Let’s take a look at the common signs, but keep in mind that it can look different in everyone.

Postpartum Depression Symptoms

Some of the symptoms of PPD might include insomnia, loss of appetite, intense irritability and trouble bonding with the new baby. Feeling sad often, crying for no reason, or going through a wide range of emotions in a short time are other symptoms.

Many of these are also symptoms of being a new mom, and it can be hard to tell when it has crossed the line into something more serious. New mothers are often sleeping less than usual and it’s common to be fatigued or irritable.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), up to 20% of new moms experience one or more symptoms of postpartum depression. These might include:

  • Feeling down or depressed for most of the day for several weeks or more
  • Feeling distant and withdrawn from family and friends
  • A loss of interest in activities (including sex)
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Feeling tired most of the day
  • Feeling angry or irritable
  • Having feelings of anxiety, worry, panic attacks or racing thoughts
  • Oversleeping or having trouble staying awake while your baby is awake
  • Losing interest in activities you once loved
  • Trouble remembering, concentrating and making decisions
  • Anger or rage that you can’t explain, or over things that wouldn’t usually get you that upset
  • Physical aches and pains that can’t be explained in other ways
  • Headaches and stomach problems

These are some of the same symptoms you will see in other types of depression — they don’t just affect new moms. However, for new moms, by the time the symptoms have escalated, they will be too deep into their depression to even recognize they need help. This is why it’s also important for those around her to be aware of the symptoms and offer support.

In the first few days and weeks after having a baby, it’s normal for a new mother to experience a lot of different emotions. You’re probably relieved to finally not be pregnant anymore. You might also be nervous about taking care of your new baby, especially if it’s your first one. You may feel a wide range of emotions that can shift quickly over a short time.

This is all normal.

However, if you have feelings of sadness that don’t go away, thoughts of harm to yourself, your baby or to someone else, if you’re unable to get out of the “funk”, and you’re experiencing a lot of the symptoms above, then you need to speak to a medical professional to see if what you’re feeling is PPD.

More than “Baby Blues”

You may have heard people talk about “baby blues” before. This common feeling of sadness or “feeling down” that many new moms often experience is often attributed to hormonal changes after birth. This sadness will usually go away within a week or two after the birth, once your hormones have a chance to rebalance themselves.

As said above, feeling this way in the first few days, or even week or two after your new baby is born, is pretty typical. Most women feel this way because of the sudden change in hormones that happens. Your body needs time and rest to regulate itself.

But PPD is more than just the “baby blues”. It won’t just go away on its own. You don’t just need a good night’s sleep or a night out. While the “baby blues” tend to pass quickly, PPD will be long-lasting and more severe. It will begin to impact your daily routine.

So, what causes this type of depression in new moms anyway? Can anyone get it? How do you know if you’re predisposed to it? Let’s take a look at what we do know.

What Causes Postpartum Depression?

There are many different factors that can lead up to PPD. There is no singular direct cause. This mood disorder is typically caused by a combination of physical and emotional factors in a person’s life and some new moms are at a higher risk of developing it than others.

After childbirth, the levels of hormones in your body (estrogen and progesterone) will drop really quickly. This will lead to chemical changes in the brain that usually go away for most women, but sometimes don’t for others. If your body doesn’t regulate the hormones on its own, you can develop PPD.

If you have a history of depression, or a history of depression in your family, you could be at a higher risk for it. Some other things that can increase your risk include:

  • Emotional stress from financial strain, loss of a loved one, job changes, illness, etc.
  • Hormonal changes from childbirth that don’t regulate on their own
  • Having a child born ill, premature, or with special needs
  • Lack of a strong support system
  • Changes in social relationships or living arrangements (a bad breakup or divorce, etc.)

The tricky thing about PPD is that it can happen to anyone! It doesn’t mean you don’t love your child or that you didn’t want a baby. It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad mom, or that you have resentment.

New moms have so many pressures on them already, they may not realize what is happening to them, or they may be so deep into the depression at that point that they don’t realize the severity. It’s easy to get caught up in blaming yourself, or thinking that you’re “not enough,” so you don’t realize you need help.

This is not caused by something you did – or anything you DIDN’T do. I know all about the guilt PPD can cause.

My Postpartum Depression Story

As I said before, I have experienced PPD with both of my pregnancies. After my first child, I was put on a low dose of antidepressants. I was stressed, felt out of control, and couldn’t enjoy the time with my own child. But with baby #2, it was worse.

I didn’t want to leave my bed, spend time with my baby, my older child, or any family. My OBGYN was seeing me every two weeks for many months just so she could make sure I wasn’t suicidal. We kept trying different medicines, but nothing worked.

Finally, after moving on from my OBGYN to a psychologist, I started to notice changes. But in order to start on the path to wellness, I had to give up breastfeeding. Certain medicines are not safe for breastfed babies, so my doctor would only prescribe me the medicine if I promised to wean. I did wean right away, and it was gut-wrenching. I felt so selfish for choosing my own health over that of my baby. But it got easier. And in hindsight, I can see that I absolutely made the right choice but at the time, I felt awful.

You cannot be a good mother to your baby unless you take care of yourself first. This is a fact, but it’s still something that mothers struggle with. Our instincts are to put our children first, always, and it’s hard to see that caring for yourself and treating your PPD is the best way to be a good mother.

Many mothers with PPD struggle with this and it’s not talked about much. The shame and blame over the choice to bottle feed is high in many new mom circles and it can be a difficult choice for any mother to make, especially without proper support.

Once I had weaned and was able to start the new medicine, I felt better almost instantly. My doctor suggested that the lactation could have also been doing a number on my overall mental health. And I think because we had so many breastfeeding problems, I was able to finally let some of the feelings of disappointment go when I weaned.

I don’t want to suggest that any mom should give up breastfeeding if they feel it’s right for them and their baby. There are other options to get control of postpartum depression; however, for me – I was out of options. Everyone has different experiences and you know best what will work well for you and your family. I just want to say that whatever works for you, it’s okay.

It’s okay.

You are enough.

That is such an important message that every new mom needs to hear. We face so many challenges and pressures, it can be easy succumb to those pressures.

Treatment for PPD looks different for each mom suffering from it. In my case, I needed to try different medications to get the right treatment that worked for me. This required me to stop breastfeeding, since those meds could be passed on to my child. But some women are able to get results from medications that are safe for use while breastfeeding.

No one else can tell you what will work for you. We can give you info about what treatments are available, but there is no way to know what your body will respond to. This is between you and your medical team to find the right answers.

Usually, after the birth of your baby, your OBGYN or doctor will ask you a series of questions about how you feel (e.g., rate your sadness on a level of 1-10 or rate how much you feel like yourself, etc). This series of questions is often referred to as a postpartum depression screening. For me, because I saw my OBGYN so frequently following the birth of my second child, these screening sheets were helpful in detecting that I wasn’t increasing my level of happiness regardless of how many weeks or months postpartum I was. As time went on and I was able to take more effective medicines for me, my scores on these postpartum screening sheets got better. It was progress and it was certainly helpful to see how far I had come.

Postpartum Depression Treatment

Some treatments for PPD include counseling, antidepressants, and hormone therapy. Treatment depends on the severity of the symptoms and your personal history and health. Every person is different and can respond to PPD and the treatments of PPD differently.

If you’re trying to treat PPD or prevent it in the first place, sleep is very, very important. Most new mothers struggle to get enough sleep and then the brain doesn’t have the chance to recuperate. Your body will struggle to regulate the hormones on its own and you can develop PPD.

The best treatment for PPD is a total-body approach. Basically, a wholesome, holistic approach that includes:

  • Counseling and talk therapy
  • Prescription medication as recommended by an expert
  • Tests for possible hormone imbalances
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Finding time to exercise (light exercise after delivery is fine)
  • Eating regular, nutritious meals
  • Having a great support system
  • Reducing other stressors in your life (when and where possible)
  • Having others help take care of your baby so you can get a break

You can also look into support groups (online and in person) for other mothers with PPD. It can help a lot just to talk to someone who understands what you’re going through. Realizing that this is something that lots of moms face and that you are not alone is very helpful for many moms in recovery.

How Long Does Postpartum Depression Last?

For some people, PPD will eventually go away on its own. The wait-and-see approach is not recommended, however, especially since therapy and medications can make it go away faster. Also, leaving it untreated means it can get worse, and make you at risk for long-term depression. It can lead to months or even years of depression.

In some cases, even with treatment, it doesn’t completely go away.

An Ongoing Battle with PostPartum Depression

While I felt some relief within two weeks on the medications I was given at first, I still wasn’t feeling like myself or even like everything was significantly better. So, I kept seeing my doctor. We tried a couple more medicines until I finally felt some relief. I’ve been on the same medicine for at least six months now, and I am nearly 2 1/2 years out from delivering my second child.

Because of the major challenges I have experienced since having children, I am not anticipating a time where I will either completely come off medicines or stop putting efforts into my overall mental wellness. Also, due to my experience with this horrible, unfair condition, my family and I made the difficult decision not to have any more children.

Even though our family doesn’t feel 100% complete, it would be unfair to my entire family, a new baby, and me, to ever go through this again. My children need a present mom and that’s what I strive every day to be. It’s always a process.

Some days I fail – I still have crippling anxiety on occasion. But I keep trying to better myself because my kids need me. My husband needs me. And while I resent the fact every day that before I had children, I wasn’t depressed, I do not resent my children at all. But I do wish that my postpartum depression hadn’t taken me away from them as long as it did.

If you are in any way affected by postpartum depression, I urge you to reach out for help. Having an honest conversation with your OBGYN can be helpful and you’re likely to be seeing him or her soon after your delivery. I deeply feel sad when I look back and realize how much time this condition took from me. The best thing you can do is to get help as soon as you can. This is because the sooner you feel better, the sooner you will be able to bond closely with your baby and experience the amazingness that is motherhood.

Natural Remedies for Postpartum Depression

If you’re doing any independent research on the internet, you’re also going to see many recommendations for natural remedies for PPD. Some of these are good for some people. However, for people like me, natural remedies were not going to be enough on their own. It’s dangerous territory to suggest that natural remedies alone can cure PPD so I’m not going to put too much time here on them, but they can be helpful for many people when used as one PART of an overall treatment plan.

If you want to consider natural remedies, I think they can definitely add to the help you are already getting from your medical team, but always do so under the care of a professional.

Some of these things we mentioned earlier can help:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Finding time to exercise (light exercise after delivery is fine)
  • Eating regular, nutritious meals
  • Having a great support system
  • Reducing other stressors in your life (when and where possible)
  • Having others help take care of your baby so you can get a break

In addition to this, you can work on mindset and mindfulness. When you feel the feelings of sadness or depression taking over, use grounding techniques or mindfulness to help you center your thoughts and shift them into something more positive.

Vitamin D is also very helpful for people. Your skin makes vitamin d when exposed to sunlight. It acts like a hormone in your body and many people who are struggling with depression are also low in it vitamin d. It can be helpful to have your levels checked, but again, a vitamin alone is not going to help a serious case of PPD. Light therapy or vitamin d supplements can be an asset in your overall plan to wellness.

Other vitamins that have helped some people include Omega-3S and vitamin B12.

Aromatherapy is also helpful for many people. You can use this along with medications and therapy for optimal results. Some aromatherapy scents to consider are clary sage, orange oil, jasmine, and any other citrus blend.

At the end of the day, listen to your body and listen to your instincts. If you feel like something is not right, get help. And if your doctor is not listening, get a second opinion or a new doctor. You do not – and should not – suffer alone.

You deserve better.

Your child(ren) deserves better.

You are not alone.

Monica

About the Author

Monica

Monica is a mom to two boys and creates content to help other moms, particularly those who are raising newborns and toddlers.

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