I have yet to meet a mother, or any parent for that matter, who has described the experience of becoming a parent as easy or exactly what they expected. That is to say, bringing a new child into the world, whether it is your first or your fifth, is big adjustment and can bring up feelings that are often unexpected. When this transition is coupled with the hormonal changes, lack of sleep, and other factors that typically accompany even the smoothest of pregnancies and childbirths, it is no wonder that 60-80% of new mothers develop the baby blues and 15-20% develop even more serious symptoms of postpartum depression (PPD) or anxiety.
What exactly are the baby blues?
The baby blues, also known as postpartum blues, are often marked by feelings of sadness, irritability, frequent crying, and exhaustion. Typically, These symptoms begin around 3-5 days after birth, around the time milk production begins, and may last anywhere from 2 hours to 2 weeks.
If you have been experiencing the following symptoms, you may be one of the many parents who develop the baby blues in the days after childbirth:
- Feeling happy one minute and sad the next
- Getting easily irritated with your partner
- Feeling exhausted from lack of sleep
- Worrying more than usual
- Feeling overwhelmed by your new responsibilities
Parents experiencing baby blues may feel exhausted and overwhelmed or become sad and tearful for periods throughout the day. However, these feelings should come and go to some extent and be peppered with moments of joy or pleasure in your new baby. Parents should be able to notice an improvement in their mood when they are able to get support from friends or family members or after taking a good nap or getting out of the house. Although the baby blues can feel quite overwhelming while you are experiencing it, it does typically resolve on its own within two weeks.
Why do baby blues only affect some?
Many women develop baby blues as a result of several major changes all happening at once, including a sudden decrease in hormone levels and transitioning from the hospital to home. However, we know it is not these experiences alone that cause the symptoms of baby blues to develop. It seems that each individual’s sensitivity to these hormonal changes may be the determining factor in why some women develop baby blues while others do not. For this same reason, it may be the case that women with a history premenstrual depression may be more likely to develop baby blues. Having a history of major depressive disorder or another mental health disorder has not be found to be predictive of developing baby blues, but these may be risk factors for developing postpartum depression or other postpartum mood disorders (PMADs), which are serious mental health conditions distinct from the baby blues.
Is this more than baby blues?
There are several ways to decipher if what your experiencing is a case of the baby blues or if it is something more serious that may require you to get additional support. It is important to pay attention to when you first noticed your feelings changing, the intensity of your symptoms, and how long you have been experiencing them. Specifically, if you have been experiencing symptoms of baby blues for over two weeks, this is a good time to reach out for additional support. If your symptoms have not resolved on their own within two weeks, this could be a sign that what you are experiencing are symptoms of PPD or another postpartum mood disorder.
In addition to looking at the length of time you have had these symptoms, I also invite you to think about the intensity of your symptoms. For example, ask yourself the following:
- Is my sadness coming and going, or is it constant and overwhelming?
- Am I able to experience moments of joy or pleasure throughout the day?
- Does my energy improve after sleep?
- Am I experiencing feelings of worthlessness?
- Is my anxiety overwhelming or is it manageable?
Feeling down for most of the day, being unable to take pleasure or interest in your baby or other aspects of your life, and being unable to sleep are all symptoms associated with postpartum depression. Additionally, feeling down on yourself, feeling that you are worthless, or having thoughts about death or harming yourself are also serious symptoms of postpartum depression. Therefore, if you are experiencing these symptoms, is it important to get help. Unlike the baby blues, PPD and other PMADs typically do not go away on their own. Getting support from a knowledgeable professional can help you get back to feeling like yourself.
How do I help my postpartum depression?
Taking the first steps of acknowledging your symptoms and reaching out for help can often be the most difficult part of your journey toward recovery from a postpartum mood disorder. As you navigate this process, it is important to remember there is no shame in seeking help. You did not cause these symptoms to occur, and you are not alone in feeling this way after childbirth. 1/7 mothers and 1/10 fathers develop a postpartum mood disorder.
In conclusion, a good first step to take if you suspect you have PPD or another postpartum mood disorder is contacting your doctor. Your OBGYN should be able to address any medical issues that could be contributing to your symptoms and point you in the direction of a knowledgeable mental health professional. In addition, seek a therapist or psychiatrist trained and experienced working with postpartum mood disorders. Postpartum Support International is a good resource for more information about PMADs, and their website can help you find a certified provider in your area. PSI can also guide you toward local support groups and resources in your area.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-SUICIDE
- National Postpartum Depression Warmline: 1-800-PPD-MOMS
Additional Information & Support:
- Postpartum Support International
- The Postpartum Stress Center
- Postpartum Men
Sara Firestone is a Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist #95257. She has experience working with children, adolescents, and families, including parents experiencing postpartum depression and anxiety. She is currently working toward certification in Advanced Perinatal Mental Health.