We often think of becoming a mother as the happiest time in a woman’s life. But during pregnancy, or soon after delivering a baby, some women may experience a serious mood disorder, known as postpartum depression (PPD).

Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders and it can negatively affect how you feel, think, and act. Like depression, PPD creates feelings of sadness, anxiety, depression, and exhaustion, which can greatly impact a woman’s ability to care for and bond with her unborn or newborn child.

Depression in pregnant women and new mothers is more common than people might think. In fact, 10 to 20 percent of pregnant women or new mothers will experience signs and symptoms of PPD.

The signs

Many of the signs and symptoms of postpartum depression are very broad and can mimic symptoms of other conditions. While PPD can affect different women in varying ways, there are some clear signs to look for. The first thing to look for is any noticeable and concerning change in personality, mood, and behavior. Those might include:

  • persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • withdrawing from her partner, friends, and family
  • not wanting to be alone with the baby
  • no interest in caring for or bonding with the baby
  • not wanting to participate in usual activities, such as exercise or hobbies
  • displaying outbursts of anger or rage directed at others
  • avoiding tasks and responsibilities
  • feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
  • difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • difficulty sleeping, even when the baby sleeps, or oversleeping
  • change in appetite
  • thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
  • aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause or that do not resolve with treatment

If you suspect that you or someone you love is suffering from postpartum depression, it is important to educate yourself about these different signs. Knowing them will help to identify patterns, which can be helpful to physicians and mental health professionals in diagnosing the severity and type of PPD.

Who is at risk?

While anyone can develop PPD, there are some women who may be at higher risk than others. A woman may be at greater risk if she:

  • has a mother who has a history of depression and mental illness
  • has depression or mental illness in her family history
  • experienced severe emotional, financial, health, or relationship stress within the past year
  • had an unplanned pregnancy
  • is under the age of 20
  • lacks a support system who can help with child care

What causes it?

There is not a single specific cause of postpartum depression. However, it can result from a combination of physical and emotional factors that occur after childbirth. It is important to note that PPD does not develop as the result of something the mother does or does not do.

Significant changes in hormones combined with physical and emotional exhaustion and sleep deprivation can significantly contribute to postpartum depression.

Treating PPD

The good news is there are several treatment options for PPD. A woman’s provider will choose one that is right for her based on individual needs, including the severity of the condition, or other factors.

Determining which treatment to pursue is a decision the woman and her family should make with her provider. PPD treatments generally include a combination of therapy with a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, and prescription medications, such as an antidepressant.

Treatment should also include healthy lifestyle practices, such as getting plenty of rest, staying hydrated, maintaining a healthy diet, avoiding alcohol, and staying physically active. This regimen can help move a new mom toward feeling better.

If you or someone you love is experiencing PPD, we can help. Learn more about Women's Behavioral Health Services at Lifespan.

Carmen Monzon, MD

Dr. Carmen Monzon is a psychiatrist in women’s behavioral medicine at the Women’s Medicine Collaborative.