According to the American Pregnancy Association, 70-80% of all new mothers experience what’s called the “baby blues”, while only 10% – 20% suffer from postpartum depression. With so many women experiencing some form of emotional upheaval after giving birth, why is there still so much confusion about the two?
Samantha Meltzer-Brody, M.D., Associate Professor and Director of the Perinatal Psychiatry Program, UNC Center for Women’s Mood Disorders, notes there’s still a stigma attached to admitting that you’re feeling sad after just giving birth to a beautiful, healthy baby.
“There’s societal pressure to feel happy and blissful, so women don’t talk about [the baby blues]. There’s enormous guilt and shame,” attached to the experience, Meltzer-Brody says.
What Causes the Baby Blues and Post-Partum Depression?
During pregnancy, a woman’s levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone are sky-high, higher than they’ve ever been at any other time in her life. Once the baby is delivered, those levels plummet. Let me repeat, they don’t gently and slowly come back down to normal levels over the course of weeks, they very quickly and dramatically drop. This neurobiological process triggers the baby blues.
Added to this drop in hormone levels is the fact that the childbirth process is profound and exhausting, and new mothers are handed a human being and expected to keep it alive, without any kind of training or manual. Needless to say, the combination of hormones, exhaustion, and outright fear can make a woman feel sad and vulnerable.
While there is no denying that giving birth and meeting her newborn is one of the most awesome and special moments in a woman’s life, Meltzer-Brody believes the idea of being purely joyful and “blissed out” are exaggerated for most women.
“The vast majority of women find both the birth and the transition to motherhood to be challenging. Certainly, there’s lots of joy and it’s a time of great happiness, but it’s really difficult the first few weeks,” she says.
It’s important for women to know the signs and symptoms of both the baby blues and postpartum depression before giving birth, so they’ll know what to expect if they’re among the majority of women who experience short-lived mood changes (the baby blues), or whether they might need to seek treatment for something more severe and persistent (postpartum depression).
You’re weepy and feel vulnerable all of the time. Some women have described it as “very bad PMS.” Symptoms last about two weeks after giving birth. You may also experience other wild mood swings like irritability, anxiety, and have a hard time focusing or concentrating.
Your symptoms last longer than two weeks after giving birth and are much more severe. While you will similarly have mood swings and feel a combination of anxiety, sadness, irritability and have trouble concentrating, you may also begin to feel hopeless and sometimes even have thoughts of harming the baby or yourself.
Postpartum depression typically emerges over the first 2-3 months after childbirth but may occur at any point after delivery.
If you have recently given birth but your symptoms are severe and lasting for more than two weeks, it is important you seek counseling. Women who are experiencing the baby blues may also find it helpful to speak to a therapist.
If you are a new mother, or know one who may be interested in exploring treatment, please contact me today. No woman should have to go through this emotional upheaval alone.
Chelsy A. Castro, JD, MA, AM, LCSW