Postpartum depression

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at March 31, 2016
StartDiseasesPostpartum depression

Postpartum depression is a serious mental disorder that can occur after childbirth. It makes a woman feel sad and often worthless.


Definition & Facts

Occurring in about 15 percent of women after they have given birth, postpartum depression is different from the more common “baby blues” (also called maternity blues). Postpartum depression lasts much longer and is more severe than the baby blues which rarely lasts longer than two weeks.

Potentially lasting for several months, postpartum depression, on the other hand, can occur after a stillbirth or a miscarriage in addition to a live birth. Moreover, postpartum depression can also become more severe in some cases, and it can become postpartum psychosis, an even more serious illness that requires emergency medical attention.

Symptoms & Complaints

Women can develop postpartum depression soon after they have given birth to a baby, have had a stillbirth, or have had a miscarriage. They may initially feel sad, irritable, helpless, or teary and may have trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, or have mood swings.

Additional symptoms may include a terrible empty feeling, a feeling of guilt or inadequacy about handling new motherhood, a feeling of totally being overwhelmed to the point of not being able to handle motherhood, the loss of pleasure in everyday things, or weight loss or weight gain due to not feeling hungry or eating too much.

These symptoms may occur right after giving birth or become more intense after a week or two of suffering from the baby blues. Women with postpartum depression will feel at least some of the symptoms for an extended period of at least several weeks but potentially much longer, depending on whether treatment is sought and/or followed.


The reasons why some new mothers get postpartum depression and others do not are not clearly known. However, there are some potential risk factors of postpartum depression. Women with the following characteristics are more likely than others to have postpartum depression:

  • Women who have had any type of depression in the past
  • Women who have had a history of severe PMS
  • Women who have had medical complications or whose babies have had medical issues
  • Women who do not have a good support system from partner, family or friends
  • Women who are having relationship difficulties

Actual causes of postpartum depression can be due to changes in an individual's hormonal balance after giving birth. Both estrogen and progesterone in a woman’s system drop dramatically after a baby is born, as do thyroid hormones. The decline of thyroid hormones in particular can lead to fatigue and depression.

In addition, a new mother has to deal with physical changes in her body. New mothers may feel pain from the delivery or may have issues with the difficulty of losing the excess baby weight they have gained. Finally, new moms can be under a great deal of stress and sleep deprivation, both of which are known to lead to depression.

Diagnosis & Tests

Medical professionals will likely perform a physical examination in addition to talking to the patient about feelings and emotions. He or she will seek to rule out a mild case of the baby blues when possible, using the length of time the patient reports feeling depressed as well as other factors.

The doctor may have the patient fill out a survey form and use the answers on it to help determine if the patient is suffering from postpartum depression. Many women find it easier to report their feelings and emotions on a survey versus a discussion with the doctor.

It is important for the patient to report all symptoms to the doctor for the best diagnosis. In addition, the doctor may order blood tests to check thyroid levels. Low levels of thyroid hormone are common and can lead to fatigue and depression. In addition, other tests may be ordered to rule out other illnesses.

Treatment & Therapy

Often simple lifestyle changes can go a long way in making a woman feel better. For example, getting adequate rest is very important. Taking advantage of nap times and the assistance of other in helping with the baby can help a new mother get adequate rest. Eating healthy is also important especially while breastfeeding the baby.

Partaking in relaxing activities is also important as is connecting with family and friends in order to experience emotional and physical support. Support groups may also be a form of therapy for mothers with postpartum depression. When these lifestyle changes are simply not enough, professional counseling including psychotherapy as well as antidepressant medications prescribed by a physician may be needed.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Knowing the risk factors for postpartum depression and being aware of the potential of it are key to prevention. Those that know they may be at risk can set up support systems ahead of time to aid in the prevention or to minimize the effects of postpartum depression.