Understanding Postpartum Depression (PPD)

For most women, bringing home their new baby is one of the happiest days of their lives.  But research shows that about one in eight new mothers struggle with postpartum depression and that the statistic climbed as high as one in three during the COVID pandemic.  The mood swings that most new moms experience usually subside within the first month after giving birth, but for mothers with postpartum depression negative emotions and trouble bonding with the baby can go on for a long time.

Understanding the symptoms of postpartum depression are crucial for the new mom, the new dad, their doctors, and the family or friends who see them. 

They include:

Sadness and mood swings – feeling persistently sad, emotionally numb or tearful

Loss of interest in things that previously were pleasurable – such as social activities or hobbies

Changes in appetite or sleep – overeating or loss of appetite, insomnia or excessive sleeping

Overwhelming anxiety and/or irritability – excessive worry beyond typical new mother concerns

Trouble bonding with the baby – feeling detached from the baby or having thoughts about harming the baby

Somatic symptoms – headaches, stomach aches, muscle pain which have no medical cause

Unfortunately, about half of the women with postpartum depression do not get the treatment that they need.  Some of them have symptoms that are potentially dangerous, such as suicidal thoughts. In addition, since the condition affects the mother’s ability to bond with the baby, the baby may also be suffering during this difficult time.

So what can be done?  First, both obstetricians and pediatricians should screen for postpartum depression during the baby’s early months. This can be done using a scale such as the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, but at a minimum, it should involve asking the new mom questions regarding the symptoms shown above, and reassuring the mother that she should not be embarrassed to answer honestly.

After screening, a woman should be quickly referred to therapy, either a group for new moms who are struggling (there are not enough of those around), or individual therapy with a licensed practitioner.  In one-on-one therapy, there are several modalities that can be helpful, including cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy or interpersonal therapy.  These can help the mother manage her emotions, communicate more effectively with her partner, and manage negative emotions about dealing with the baby.

If the postpartum depression is severe, it may be appropriate for a new mom to go on medication.  While there are concerns about medication use while breast-feeding, the risk of depression is great. A new medication, recently approved by the FDA, is called Zurzuvae and is specifically for postpartum depression. It works differently than traditional SSRIs and experts are encouraged that this fast-acting medication can help women in the early stages of postpartum depression.

If you know a new mom who is struggling with postpartum depression, don’t hesitate to reach out and encourage her to get help.  Just by acknowledging what she is going through, you can make a real difference in her life and that of her baby.