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Postpartum Blues

After giving birth to a new baby, friends, family, and even strangers often comment on the joy the mother must feel. But for women suffering from postpartum depression, the feelings of happiness often expected by society may be replaced by anxiety and tears.

During the first three months following childbirth, it is common for mothers to face emotional distress. In fact, the baby blues affect about 70 percent of women during the first two weeks after birth.

“If a woman has an adequate support system, the baby blues are likely to spontaneously disappear after two weeks,” says Teresa Gevedon, M.D., assistant professor, University of Kentucky College of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry. “However, if symptoms persist, the mother may be experiencing more than the baby blues.”

It’s a medical illness

Postpartum depression is a serious medical psychiatric illness affecting 10 to 20 percent of mothers, beginning up to three months after delivery. Due to hormone fluctuations, these women experience a significant depression, with tearfulness, anxiety, irritability, and sleep and appetite changes. If not properly treated, symptoms can last for a year or longer.

“While it is difficult to predict who will develop postpartum depression, women who previously or currently suffer from an affective mood disorder or who previously have experienced postpartum depression are at a greater risk,” Gevedon says.

Postpartum depression is not commonly talked about. Mothers may feel hesitant to admit feelings of unhappiness during what’s supposed to be a joyful time in their lives. However, mothers should keep in mind that having postpartum depression doesn’t mean that she is a bad mother, rather that she has a treatable illness.

When to ask for help

“Understandably, bringing home a new baby is a stressful time in a mother’s life,” Gevedon says. “If she is having questions about her ability to care for a child–if she’s feeling exceptionally overwhelmed, not eating, feeling that she needs help–then she needs to ask for help. It is important for both the mother and the baby that she gets treatment early on.”

Postpartum depression can be treated with anti-depressants and therapy. The use of medications while breast-feeding should be discussed with the woman’s physician.

“It’s important to take care of the mother, so she is able to take care of the baby,” Gevedon says. “Without therapy and medication, a mother may not be able to care for her child. Someone who is depressed may have difficulty bonding with the child, eating properly in order to breast-feed, or having enough energy to go to pediatrician appointments.”

Women who have high risk factors for developing postpartum depression should seek appropriate preventive care.

“If a woman previously has had postpartum depression or an affective mood disorder, she should get appropriate prenatal care and may want to consider psychiatric intervention before feelings of depression occur,” Gevedon says.

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