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Up to 80 percent of new mothers get the baby blues, a form of depression that begins soon after delivery and generally lasts no more than two weeks. Those whose symptoms start about six weeks after delivery are more likely to have postpartum depression (PPD), a full-blown clinical depression that affects 10 to 20 percent of new mothers.
Along with symptoms similar to those of the baby blues, such as weepiness and anxiety, you may also become moody and irritable. Women with PPD can lose their appetite or their ability to sleep. Some have panic attacks. A small number of women believe they can't adequately care for their baby. Others report feeling suicidal or having disturbing negative thoughts about their baby.
Unfortunately, the medical community has misunderstood and misdiagnosed PPD for some time. PPD can strike any woman, either immediately after the birth of her baby or many months later. Sometimes healthcare providers don't take new mothers' concerns seriously, dismissing the symptoms as hormonal shifts and trouble adjusting to motherhood.
Our society also makes it difficult to admit to having negative feelings about motherhood or your baby. When mothers do express feelings such as ambivalence, fear, or rage, they can frighten themselves and those close to them.
What causes PPD? Most experts agree that it results from a combination of hormonal, biochemical, psychosocial, and environmental influences. Although experts suspect that hormones play a large part in PPD, we also know that new fathers and adoptive mothers can have PPD, which tells us that it's not strictly hormonal.
Some women are more likely than others to get PPD, so being informed and prepared long before you give birth is helpful. You're more at risk for PPD if:
• You or anyone in your family has a history of depression or other mental health issues, or you were prone to bouts of intense anxiety or depression while you were pregnant.
• Your pregnancy wasn't planned, and you were unhappy to find out that you were pregnant.
• Your spouse or partner is unsupportive.
• You've recently gone through a separation or divorce.
• You went through a serious life change, such as a big move or loss of a job, at or around the time you had your baby.
• You had obstetric complications.
• You were subject to early childhood trauma, have been abused, or come from a dysfunctional family.
Remember, though, that these risk factors don't necessarily cause PPD. Many women can have a number of them and never get depressed. Others can have just one risk factor or even none at all and still end up with a full-blown major depression.
We don't know exactly why PPD happens to one woman and not another. We do know that these risk factors make a woman more vulnerable. If a woman knows she's at risk, she can begin to take preventative measures — such as mobilizing a support network and fortifying her resources — before the birth of her baby.
It's important to know the difference between normal emotional changes after birth and a need for professional care. It's not just what you're feeling that indicates that something may be amiss, but thefrequency, intensity, and duration of your feelings.
In other words, new mothers often feel sad and anxious periodically during the first few months following childbirth. But if you're crying all day long and are up at night with panic attacks, you should contact your doctor.
In addition to talking with your healthcare provider, you can take steps to elevate your spirits. These ideas may seem simple, but they're often last on the list of things for a new mother to do.
It's important to make sure your own basic needs, such as getting enough rest and good nutrition, are being met. Try to get some help around the house. It might also be good to talk with other new mothers who are also experiencing the highs and lows of motherhood.
If you feel violent or aggressive toward your baby, or if you think you're incapable of responsibly caring for your newborn, seek professional help immediately. You are not going crazy. You are not a bad mother. Postpartum depression is real and treatment is available. You will feel better again.