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Now What?

Postpartum depression affects many mothers; treatment offers hope.

By Joshua Sparrow | null , null

There is so much pressure for everything to be perfect when a woman brings a new life into the world: a natural birth, immediate bonding with the baby, breastfeeding. Anything that doesn’t go the way things are “supposed to” can make a new mother feel like a failure and can increase the risk of postpartum depression. Everyone is ready to be overjoyed, but the other feelings—exhaustion, anxiety, fear of inadequacy as a parent, and a sense of loss of the way life was—can catch parents off guard. Reactions like these are normal.

Postpartum blues are quite common—70 to 80 percent of women feel exhausted, irritable, moody, and tearful about two or three days after delivery, for no more than two weeks. The rapid decline of hormones shortly after delivery may be responsible for these distressing but common symptoms.

Postpartum depression, on the other hand, affects between 8 and 20 percent of women any time in the first year after delivery, most frequently in the first four weeks. It’s more severe and lasts longer. It may be triggered by hormone changes, occasionally by low thyroid levels—which should be checked by a doctor if depression is suspected. It can happen to any woman, after the first or later pregnancies. It’s more likely if there’s a personal or family history of depression, with major stresses or losses, and when a mother doesn’t have a support system. Doulas—women who are trained to offer support through pregnancy, delivery, and the demands of a new baby—can help prevent it.

Signs and Treatments
Signs of postpartum depression include trouble sleeping; appetite changes; overwhelming irritability, anger, sadness, or anxiety; and sometimes thoughts of harming one’s self or the baby (this last requires immediate medical attention). A depressed new mother may feel:  “I’m no good for my baby.” Feelings of uninterest or anger at the baby can be devastating.

Talking therapy and medication are very effective. Ask for help from your doctor—and from friends and family, too. In addition to helping you unload your feelings, they can watch over the baby while you take a little time to rest and recharge, until you feel up to caring for the baby yourself. Fathers are also more likely to become depressed during this life-changing time. Extra support for a father can help him find within himself the nurturance that mother and baby need. 

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