Having a baby is an absolutely exciting and amazing time in anyone's life. It is supposed to be a time of newborn bliss, snuggles, and joy. But what if it’s not? What if you feel depressed., anxious, and overwhelmed? What if instead of being more in love than ever you feel disconnected and unattached to this new life? Some of those feelings may be related to the perfectly normal hormonal shift often referred to as the “Baby Blues” but it can also be indicative of perinatal mood disorders. Perinatal mental health disorders are the most common complication of childbearing in the United States. Understanding the difference between the “baby blues” and Postpartum Depression is critical in getting moms (and partners) the help they need and deserve.
The postpartum hormone shift is the fastest and most dramatic hormone shift in the human body. During the end of pregnancy two hormones, estrogen and progesterone are at an all-time high to support a healthy baby and a healthy pregnancy. Along with oxytocin, they are also responsible for the “feel good” part of our brain. After delivery, these hormones drop to a menopausal level in just a few days. In addition, the hormone Prolactin, which is largely responsible for milk production, plays a counter effect on oxytocin and decreases any “feel good” hormones. There are also major changes in the thyroid hormone and adrenal glands that can affect mood and overall feeling of wellness. Add the physical and emotional recovery of birthing a baby with sleep deprivation, and it's no wonder postpartum moms don’t feel like themselves.
While all these hormonal changes are perfectly biologically normal, it is also a difficult and emotional time. Eating a well-balanced diet to replenish the nutrients lost during birth and milk production can help alleviate some of the symptoms of the drastic hormonal shift. Even with adequate hydration, nutrition, rest, and support, a majority of postpartum moms still experience some degree of the “Baby Blues”. The “Baby Blues” is essentially a label to describe the period in which the hormones described above are plummeting. The term "baby blues" refers to the short-lived emotional state that many new mothers experience within the first few days or weeks after childbirth. This phenomenon is rooted in hormonal fluctuations, sleep deprivation, physical recovery, and the sheer adjustment to life with a new infant. This period lasts from a few days to two weeks after birth and symptoms include weepiness, mild ups and downs, and stress. While these feelings can feel intense at the moment and you can be crying one minute and laughing the next, it is temporary and self-resolves. They do not typically interfere with a mother's ability to care for her baby or carry out daily tasks. But what if it does?
Understanding the difference between the “Baby Blues” and Postpartum Depression is crucial in the early identification, support, and treatment of Postpartum Depression. In contrast to the baby blues, postpartum depression (PPD) is a more severe and persistent mental health condition. It often develops within the first few months after childbirth but can emerge anytime within the first year. PPD goes beyond the usual emotional ups and downs and can significantly impact a mother's daily life, as well as her relationship with her baby. Postpartum Depression affects about 1 in 7 mothers and is vastly undertreated. While the primary cause of Postpartum Depression is the significant hormonal shift in the body, sleep deprivation, inadequate nutrition, isolation, poor partner support, health issues of mom or baby, a high-needs infant, feeding challenges, a history of mental health disorders, and other major stressors can cause or make PPD worse. The symptoms of Postpartum Depression are similar to the symptoms of the “Baby Blues” but are much more intense, last longer, and affect daily life. Postpartum Depression can last well into Toddlerhood if left untreated. Typical symptoms of Postpartum Depression include;
- Low self-esteem
- Difficulty sleeping at night (even when the baby is sleeping)
- Big appetite changes (usually a decrease)
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Frequent crying
- Lack of emotion
- Hopelessness (feeling of nothing to look forward to)
These symptoms are common in all six Perinatal Mood Disorders and warrant a discussion with a trained and licensed Maternal Mental Health Professional. Like all other medical conditions such as Diabetes or Heart Disease, Postpartum Depression is treatable with the proper care. The most important thing you can do for yourself and your baby is to seek help. Postpartum Depression is not your fault and not something to be ashamed of. You deserve to feel healthy, happy, and regulated. Our babies deserve happy, healthy mamas. You are not alone and you will never be judged for reaching out and seeking help. There is no reason to continue to suffer. If you answer yes to any of the below questions, seek professional help.
Ask yourself (and answer honestly):
- Are you feeling sad or depressed?
- Are you frequently more irritable or angry with those around you?
- Are you having difficulty eating or sleeping?
- Are you having trouble bonding with your new baby?
- Do you feel anxious, on edge, or panicky?
- Are you having intrusive or disturbing thoughts?
- Do you feel out of control of your emotions?
- Are you or have you had thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, seek professional help. If ever you are having thoughts of harming yourself or your baby it is a medical emergency and should be treated as such by dialing 911. A great place to start for support is by visiting Postpartum.net for resources and a National list of trained professionals.
Did you know 1 in 10 men experience depression and anxiety during the perinatal period? While this is hardly ever talked about it is important to shed light on its existence. Men are less likely to seek support and care for fear of judgment and stigmatization. However, just like maternal Perinatal Mood disorders, it is a serious medical condition and left untreated can have all the same outcomes for men as women including the inability to bond with their babies, inability to cope and function in daily life, and isolation from loved ones. If you or your partner are experiencing any of these symptoms, seek help at Postpartum.net.
It is important that partners are aware of the signs and symptoms of PPD. They are often the ones recognizing and supporting postpartum moms during this difficult time. Perinatal mood disorders absolutely affect the entire family. Partner support plays a huge role in the treatment of PPD. It is important to remember that this is not her (or his) fault and can be treated. If you have noticed any of the above symptoms in your partner, approach them from a non-judgmental, concerned place and ask how you can support them in getting the help they need and deserve. Always be sure to reassure your partner that this is not their fault and that they are not alone. Encourage your partner to express their feelings and listen intently without judgment. Often taking care of simple household chores or daily tasks related to newborn care can decrease the overwhelm postpartum mothers experience and can help alleviate some negative feelings. If your partner is willing and able, schedule some time for them to do something they enjoy with friends or family. Keeping track of your partner's nutritional intake and sleep can also make a huge difference in their recovery as nutrition and sleep are vital for optimal functioning. Recognizing the stress you as a partner are going through is just as important as taking care of your partner. Be sure you, as the partner, have your own support system in place so you can be the best version of yourself for your partner. Keep the lines of communication open both ways and respect your own boundaries if you need a break. It is okay to tell your partner you are taking a few minutes to yourself so you can come back refreshed and ready to support them. Also, recognize that you do not have all the answers and cannot fix this by yourself. Seek help and together you can overcome it.
I know this journey can be scary and overwhelming. Always remember you are never alone. There is help out there and you will feel better.
This article is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice. Always seek a licensed mental health professional for help.
Chelsea McMann, The Mama Coach, is a Registered Nurse in an independent practice dedicated to supporting families in their parenting journey from Birth to Potty Learning and every milestone in between. I offer individual and group support in person in the greater Sacramento area as well as virtually anywhere. You can find a list of my services and how to work with me at Chelsea-Mcmann.themamacoach.com
Resources for Mothers and Partners:
Postpartum Support International: Postpartum.net or call/text “Help” to 800-944-4773
Maternal Mental Health Hotline (24/7 support in 60 languages): call or text 833-943-5746 (English) or 971-203-7773 (Spanish)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8355
National Women’s Health Information Center: 800-994-9662 or womenshealth.gov/faq/postpartum.htm
Always dial 911 for an Emergency
American Pregnancy Association. (2023). Baby blues or postpartum depression. Retrieved from https://americanpregnancy.org/healthy-pregnancy/first-year-of-life/baby-blues-or-postpartum-depression/
Postpartum Support International. (2023.). Depression. Retrieved from https://www.postpartum.net/learn-more/depression/