Postpartum Depression: How to Recognize the Signs

Here’s what to do if you’re struggling to adjust.

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Bringing home and starting a new life with a baby is often considered one of the most amazing milestones in adulthood, so feeling any sort of sadness or dissatisfaction might make you feel ashamed or guilty.

But sadness after having a baby is more common than you might think, and many women feel some extent of postpartum blues in the year after delivery. Postpartum blues may come and go shortly in the weeks after childbirth, but postpartum depression is different. It can start any time in the first year after giving birth (it may not happen ASAP), may last months or longer, and is severe enough to prevent new moms from bonding with their babies.

“After having a baby, there are so many drastic changes to life, to your body, and life as you once knew it,” says Khadijah Watkins, MD, a psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medicine.

The exhaustion and swirl of emotions associated with caring for a newborn can be a huge adjustment for many women, and it may affect self-esteem and stress management. Rapidly fluctuating hormone levels in the postpartum period can also make new moms more vulnerable to depression.

Symptoms of postpartum depression include the following:

  • Sadness

  • Anxiety

  • Despair

  • Irritability

  • Difficulty bonding with the baby

  • A lack of interest in things

  • And feeling unable to care for the baby or that nothing they do is “enough.”

Treating postpartum depression can include some combination of psychotherapy, medication, group therapy, and family therapy. Whether in a one-on-one or group setting, talk therapy may last just a few weeks or several months or longer.

“One of the challenges when you have postpartum depression is you feel like you are alone,” says New York City-based psychologist Ben Michaelis, PhD, “so having a group of other women that are experiencing similar symptoms can be quite therapeutic.”

Medications for postpartum depression are similar to those used for treating depression, but special consideration is given if the mother is breastfeeding. Certain antidepressants are safer to use while breastfeeding than others. (Learn more about the different types of antidepressants here.)

“The key thing is that there’s no one way to be a mom and there’s one way to be a new parent,” says Jennifer Hartstein, PsyD, a psychologist in New York City. “They’re going to have really great moments and really bad moments, and that’s okay, too.” If the bad moments start to outweigh the good, however, don’t hesitate to reach out for support.