When my oldest son was born after a highly traumatic c-section, we brought him home to a house we’d lived in for four months. We were 80 miles from our nearest family and friends and knew no one in our new town. My husband went back to working 12-hour days an hour from home after our third day out of the hospital, taking our only car with him. I was alone with my son from 5 every morning until 7 every night. I was healing from my surgery, nursing a newborn, alone in a new town with no physical support from family or friends. Every meal, every load of laundry, every dish washed, it was all me.
I had no idea what to expect when we brought him home. I’d never spent much time around babies and had no idea how intensely exhausting and emotionally draining those first few months could be. Couple that with my isolation and history of depression and anxiety, and I was ripe for postpartum depression (PPD). Trouble was, I didn’t realize it.
I’d read about PPD, of course, just like every new mom. But for whatever reason, I didn’t recognize myself as having pretty much every symptom. I never slept, I was irritable and anxious, I cried all the time, I felt like I was failing at mothering my baby, I didn’t bathe or change clothes for days on end. On good days, I had the energy to move from the bed to the sofa, where I would sit, suspended, nursing my son in a fog. On bad days, I wanted to die. I chalked it all up to hormones and assumed everything I was feeling was within the range of normal for new moms.
It took 18 months for me to talk to a doctor about my symptoms, and by then my PPD had morphed into major depressive disorder (MDD). I wish I’d known sooner that what I was feeling was not normal and not typical of new motherhood.
Who is at Risk?
It’s estimated that as many as 1 in 7 women experience postpartum depression. PPD doesn’t discriminate. First-time moms, experienced moms, rich moms, poor moms, single moms, moms in relationships—any person who gives birth is at risk. There’s no specific demographic that is more likely to have PPD than others. However, women with a history of depression or other mood disorders, who experienced a traumatic birth or pregnancy, or who don’t have a strong support system are at higher risk.
What to Watch For
“Baby blues,” or unexplained feelings of sadness, are not uncommon in the postpartum period. Mood fluctuations due to dramatic shifts in the hormones estrogen and progesterone can cause the mild ups and downs, crying spells, and anxiety associated with the newborn phase of motherhood. If these feelings persist or worsen, you should speak to your healthcare provider. Your six-week postpartum checkup is a great time to discuss not only your physical recovery but also your emotional well-being.
Symptoms of PPD include:
- Severe mood swings
- Protracted crying spells
- Anxiety or panic attacks
- Recurrent insomnia or inability to sleep
- Unexplained anger and irritability
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Thoughts of harming yourself or your baby
- Withdrawing from loved ones
- Worry that you are a bad mother
- Difficulty bonding with your baby
- Decreased appetite or binging on food
- Inability to concentrate or focus on tasks
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If you or a loved one experience any of these symptoms up to a year after giving birth, you should contact your healthcare provider and discuss the next steps to be evaluated for PPD.
What treatments are available?
Luckily, most cases of PPD respond to treatment, and your healthcare provider may recommend a combination of medication and talk therapy. At home, you may find meditation, mindfulness, and exercise to be helpful. Also, studies have shown that supplementation with a highly bioavailable form of magnesium, like magnesium citrate, can help decrease symptoms associated with PPD.
One other way moms might stave off PPD is by promoting gut health during and after pregnancy. There is evidence showing that maternal gut flora changes dramatically during pregnancy and especially in the days surrounding delivery. By increasing your fiber intake and adding probiotics and prebiotic foods like leafy greens to your diet, you boost “good bacteria” in your gut while making it less hospitable to “bad bacteria.” Encouraging healthy bacteria reduces inflammation and improves the health of your gut microbiome, thereby improving not only your mental health but overall well-being.
The most important thing you can do if you experience any of the symptoms associated with PPD is to talk to your healthcare provider. Treatments are available that will set you on the path to feeling better. The postpartum period is difficult without the added burden of PPD, so don’t be afraid to reach out. You don’t have to endure this alone; your primary care physician (PCP), obstetrician, midwife, and even your pediatrician can get you moving in the right direction.
Kristi Pahr is a freelance health and wellness writer and mother of two who spends most of her time caring for people other than herself. She is frequently exhausted and compensates with an intense caffeine addiction. Her work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, Men’s Health, and many others.
American Psychological Association. What is Postpartum Depression & Anxiety?
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Edwards SM, Cunningham SA, Dunlop AL, Corwin EJ. The Maternal Gut Microbiome During Pregnancy. The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing. 2017 November; 42(6):310–317. doi: 10.1097/NMC.0000000000000372