Many new mothers experience negative feelings or mood swings in the weeks after giving birth — a phenomenon known as the “baby blues.”
Some new mothers experience more severe depression symptoms after childbirth. When these symptoms are intense or persistent, they’re often referred to as postpartum depression.
If you’ve recently given birth, your healthcare provider may suggest that you undergo screening for postpartum depression. This process is typically used to find out if you have symptoms that require treatment from a mental health provider.
Below, we’ve talked about what postpartum depression is, as well as how the screening process for it works.
We’ve also explained why you may need to undergo postpartum depression screening if you’ve recently given birth.
Postpartum depression is a form of depression that occurs after childbirth. It’s one of the most common forms of depression in women, affecting approximately one in every nine postpartum women, or new mothers.
Many postpartum women experience the baby blues — feelings of sadness, emptiness and anxiousness that typically occur a few days after giving birth. For most women, these feelings fade away over the course of three to five days.
For women affected by this form of depression, these symptoms can continue for several weeks or months after giving birth.
It’s normal to feel emotionally and physically overwhelmed after you give birth. However, women with maternal depression often have severe, persistent symptoms that continue for far longer than the typical baby blues.
Common symptoms include:
Feelings of sadness, hopelessness or simply being overwhelmed
Having thoughts about self-harm or harming your baby
Feelings of worthlessness, or a belief that you’re a bad mother
Not feeling interested in or connected to your baby
Feeling as if your baby is someone else’s
Crying frequently due to emotional changes
Sleeping too little or for an excessive amount of time
Changes in your diet, such as eating excessively or too little
Persistent headaches, muscle pains and/or digestive problems
Loss of interest in hobbies and other activities
Fatigue, lack of energy and limited motivation
Difficulty focusing, remembering things or making decisions
Withdrawing from relationships, including with your friends and family
Many of these symptoms are similar or identical to those of other common types of depression, such as major depressive disorder.
Current research suggests that this form of depression may develop as a result of sudden, large changes in your body’s level of certain hormones that can affect your mood and behavior.
After childbirth, your levels of hormones such as estrogen and progesterone suddenly drop from the high levels maintained during pregnancy back to normal. Experts think that this decrease in hormone levels may cause perinatal depression symptoms to develop.
Other hormonal issues, such as low levels of thyroid hormones, may also play a role in the baby blues and more sustained, persistent depression following childbirth.
Other factors that may contribute to this form of depression include the physical exhaustion that occurs after childbirth, stress from the sudden life changes caused by having a baby, feelings of doubt or concern about motherhood and unrealistic expectations about being a “perfect mom.”
Our guide to postpartum depression discusses these potential causes and their effects on your mood and feelings after giving birth in more detail.
Certain factors may increase your risk of developing perinatal depression. You may have an increased risk of developing it if you:
Have a personal history of depression or bipolar disorder
Have a family history of depression or bipolar disorder
Gave birth to a preterm infant (child born before 37 weeks of pregnancy)
Experienced problems during a previous birth or pregnancy
Had depression during your pregnancy (antenatal depression)
Have financial or relationship problems
Lack support from your family and friends
Are younger than 20 years of age
Experience difficulties breastfeeding your baby
Had an unplanned pregnancy
Use illicit drugs or have a substance use disorder, including alcoholism
If you’re worried about developing postpartum depression, it’s important to let your healthcare know about your concerns.
If you’ve recently given birth, your healthcare provider may give you a screening to see if you display any signs of the baby blues.
This screening is normally carried out by your primary care provider, obstetrician/gynecologist, midwife or other healthcare professional. It’s usually included as part of a routine postpartum exam to assess your health and wellbeing after childbirth, during the perinatal period.
Research shows that the best time to undergo screening for postpartum depression is between four and six weeks after giving birth.
As part of the screening process, your healthcare provider may ask you to complete a short questionnaire called the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS).
This questionnaire is designed to assess your mood and check for symptoms of depression and anxiety. Your healthcare provider might also ask additional questions to check that you’re feeling well and don’t have any postpartum health issues.
If you show depressive symptoms during your screening, your healthcare provider may suggest a blood test to check for hormonal issues such as thyroid disease.
Like other types of depression, postpartum depression can be treated with medication, therapy and changes to your lifestyle.
Your healthcare provider may suggest the following treatments:
Antidepressants. These depression medications are designed to reduce the severity of symptoms and help you recover. Research shows that people with depression who take antidepressants are more likely to recover than those that do not use medication.
Several antidepressants are used to treat postpartum depression, including medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). More recently, a new medication called brexanolone (Zulresso®) has been approved to treat postpartum depression.
Psychotherapy. Therapy involves talking to a licensed mental health professional about your depression symptoms and learning new techniques to improve your mood, feelings, thoughts and behavior.
Lifestyle changes. Making changes to your lifestyle, such as resting, spending time with friends and family, talking about your feelings with your partner or taking part in an online group therapy may help reduce the severity of your depressive symptoms.
Your healthcare provider may suggest actionable changes that you can make to your habits and lifestyle to speed up recovery.
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). This treatment, which is performed under general anesthesia, is typically used to treat rare, serious cases of postpartum depression that don’t respond to other treatments.
Research shows that postpartum depression can last for several years if untreated. In a study published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that a quarter of mothers showed some elevated depressive symptoms three years after giving birth, well after the end of the perinatal period.
Because postpartum depression can last for a long period of time, it’s important to seek expert help if you experience symptoms or if you have a positive screen, even if several months have passed since you gave birth.
If you’re at risk of postpartum depression, your healthcare provider may suggest completing a routine depression screening once per year.
Our guide to how long postpartum depression lasts provides more information on what you can do to seek help if you develop depression symptoms in your postpartum period.
Postpartum depression is a common issue that can take a serious toll on your mood, thoughts, feelings and quality of life as a new mother.
If you’ve recently given birth, it’s important to take part in a postpartum depression screening to check for symptoms. You’ll typically be screened by your healthcare provider or OB-GYN a few weeks after you give birth.
If you haven’t undergone a screening, it’s best to contact your healthcare provider to schedule a screening for depression.
You can also find out more about treating depression, anxiety and other common mental health issues with our mental health resources.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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