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What is Postpartum Depression?

Postpartum depression, also known as postnatal depression, affects an estimated 10 to 20 percent of new moms. It is quite different from the "baby blues," which begins immediately after birth and lasts only a few days. The onset for postpartum depression (PPD) is generally three to five weeks but can be up to a year after the birth. The duration for PPD is also much longer than the baby blues, lasting months or possibly even years. Generally, it interferes with the mother's daily functioning abilities. The symptoms, similar to those of Major Depression, include anxiety, confusion, sadness, anger, resentment, and guilt. The new mother may experience uncontrollable crying or suicidal thoughts. She often cannot eat or sleep and may have obsessive or disturbing thoughts about her newborn. She may be overly concerned with her baby's health to the point of obsession, or she might even have thoughts of harming the baby. Because a mother's state of mind and functional abilities are highly influential in the development of her child, it is important to understand the causes and preventative measures of PPD.

Am I at Risk for Postpartum Depression?

Certain physiological conditions can put a woman at risk for PPD. Exhaustion can play a large role. Due to the demands of a newborn, a mother can be severely sleep deprived. This is especially true if the baby is colicky or has special needs. Additionally, the sharp drop in estrogen and serum lipid cholesterol levels immediately following birth can create an imbalance which in turn affects the mother's emotional well-being. Sometimes the amount of estrogen falls below pre-pregnancy levels.

Although a history of depression is one of the best indicators suggesting a woman is a prime candidate for PPD, a number of other sociological and psychological factors contribute to the emotional well-being of a new mother. One major factor is a lack of social support. A woman may feel anger and resentment toward her partner for not helping her with some of the responsibilities of a newborn. She may not even have a partner, or she has no support system of friends and family to turn to for help. Circumstances such as unemployment, financial difficulties, and an unwanted pregnancy can have a strong effect on her emotional well-being. Some women experience a certain amount of disillusionment in those first few weeks after the birth. A new mother may feel extreme guilt for not fitting the stereotype of a joyful mother, or she may not feel an immediate bonding with the baby. Sometimes the high expectations regarding the birth of the newborn are not met due to uncontrollable circumstances. There may have been a complicated birth requiring a cesarean section, or there may be medical problems with the baby. A new mother may also feel anguish over failed attempts at breast feeding. Although some of these causes cannot be prevented, certain steps can be taken to prepare for or deal with PPD.

Suggestions for Help

What can you do to prevent postpartum depression? Here are some suggestions:

1. Take time for yourself. Leave the house at least once a day, and rest whenever an opportunity arises. Sleep when the baby sleeps.

2. Accept help from others. If friends or family members ask if there's anything they can do, have an answer ready for them.

3. Pay attention to what you eat. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and minimize your intake of caffeine and sugar.

4. Enlist the help of a postpartum doula. The services of a doula range from visiting periodically to help and teach you how to care for your newborn to actually living with you for a period of time. Some doulas will even barter their services for some sort of noncash payment if money is an issue.

5. See a therapist. Simply talking to someone about what you are going through can make a tremendous difference.

6. Find a support group for those with postpartum depression. Ask your ob-gyn or midwife if he or she knows of a support group in your area.

7. Take antidepressants. There are some effective antidepressants that are safe to take while breast feeding.