Conditions

The Causes of Postpartum Depression and How to Treat It

Postpartum depression (PPD) affects up to one in seven women after childbirth, yet it’s often not discussed as openly as other mental health conditions. Understanding its causes, symptoms, and treatment options is crucial for supporting new mothers through this challenging time.

Therapist Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta By Jaclyn Gulotta, LMHC

Updated on May 13, 2024

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As many as one in seven women can develop postpartum depression — also called postnatal depression — a mental health condition that develops after a woman has given birth. Longer lasting and more intense than the baby blues, the symptoms of which tend to dissipate two weeks after the birth, postpartum depression can seriously impair a woman’s ability to return to normal functioning after having a baby.  

And yet, despite how common it is, it’s still not talked about as much as other mental health conditions. But why? Just like it’s not a person’s fault if they’re diagnosed with clinical depression, a woman isn’t to blame if she has postpartum depression — it’s a complication that has occurred after childbirth. 

There are still many questions, and much shame, around postpartum depression — but there doesn’t need to be. Here, we’ll share what causes it, how it can be treated, and what can happen if left untreated. 

What Is Postpartum Depression?

People often describe how they feel after having a baby with a beaming — albeit tired — smile, gushing about their newborn, how in love they are with their new mini-me, and how they couldn’t imagine loving anyone as much as they love their new baby. But not everyone feels like this after giving birth — and that’s more than OK.

Postpartum depression is a mental health condition that occurs after childbirth “postpartum” meaning “after childbirth.” 

Sometimes, postpartum depression (PPD), or perinatal depression, can be mistaken for baby blues, symptoms of which include:

While baby blues tend to occur four to five days after childbirth, with symptoms lessening or disappearing two weeks after delivery, postpartum depression symptoms commonly materialize within six weeks of having a baby. However, it can start anytime within the first year after birth or even during pregnancy and may last anywhere from a few months to three years

Symptoms

Even though it’s normal to have depressive-like symptoms after giving birth, if someone experiences the following, according to the Office on Women’s Health, for longer than two weeks, it’s advised they should call their doctor or midwife. 

Prevalence 

Postpartum depression tends to occur most commonly within six weeks after childbirth. It usually appears in about 6.5% to 20% of women, primarily adolescent females, mothers who give birth to premature babies, and women living in urban areas. 

Only around 20% of women who experience PPD report symptoms to their primary care providers. Evidence has been shown that the reason new mothers don’t report their feelings of depression is because they fear being stigmatized or labeled as a “bad mother.” 

Julia Preamplume, a Grow Therapy Licensed Professional Counselor, believes there are many reasons women don’t report their symptoms. “Some mothers may not be aware of the symptoms of postpartum depression and the different ways it can present itself. They may not have been given enough information by their care team on signs and symptoms to be aware of following the birth of their child. If they lack support they may not have friends, family, or a partner to point out to them that they don’t seem like themselves.”

Preamplume adds, “Some people struggling with PPD may feel ashamed of it, especially if it’s preventing them from feeling bonded with their child. I also think moms in the U.S. are placed under a lot of pressure to be their child’s everything and this leads to perfectionism and a phenomenon called ‘mom guilt.’ These can make it difficult for moms to share when they are struggling.”

What Causes Postpartum Depression?

There are several reasons someone might get postpartum depression from hormone levels to a lack of social support with some people being more predisposed than others. 

Risk Factors 

Some risk factors can include: 

Biological Factors and Hormonal Changes

There’s also the possibility that hormonal changes might trigger PPD. The levels of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone are the highest they’ll ever be when a woman is pregnant. 

Another biological factor that could be considered is the dropping of thyroid levels after childbirth. Low thyroid levels can cause symptoms of depression, which is why women who have just given birth may be at increased risk of postpartum depression

Being of young age could be another reason for the onset of PPD. It’s been reported that the highest level of depression was found in new mothers aged 13-19 years. 

Psychological Factors and Life Stressors

Women with a previous history of mental illness, such as depression and anxiety disorders, are associated with a higher risk of PPD because they’re more susceptible to hormonal changes that would trigger PPD. 

Previous history of sexual abuse is also linked to PPD, as are major life events that cause severe emotional, financial, health, or relationship stress

Preamplume adds, “A lack of paid maternity and paternity leave in the U.S. are significant contributors to PPD. Not having enough time for a mother’s body to recover from birth, as well as being forced to separate from her child so quickly to return to work, is devastating for many new moms.”

Social Factors and Support Systems

A lack of social support is an important environmental factor when it comes to the onset of a depressive disorder, which is why mothers who experience an absence of familial or emotional support systems may be more at risk of postpartum depression.

What a woman goes through in the lead-up to childbirth can also affect whether she’s more prone to developing PPD, such as if she faces sexual or domestic violence during pregnancy. 

Support for postpartum depression

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Screening and Diagnosis 

A postpartum depression screening can be had as part of a routine check-up after childbirth and helps to diagnose the condition so that treatment can be started as soon as possible. 

Your healthcare provider might ask you the questions, or you might fill out a form and discuss your answers afterward. One of the most common questionnaires is called the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS), and it includes 10 questions about your mood and thoughts. The EPDS can be repeated to check for symptoms that may develop later after childbirth. 

A blood test can also be taken to see whether it’s hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism that may be causing your depression.

Treatment Options 

The following interventions for postpartum depression can be used alone or together, depending on the advice given to you by your medical health provider.

Therapy

Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), are common types of treatment that might help someone dealing with postpartum depression deal with their feelings. “Sessions may focus on destigmatizing PPD, teaching coping skills, learning how to not over-identify with unhelpful thoughts, and helping the client to connect with or build a support system,” says Preamplume.

Support groups may also be helpful for those with PPD due to the inclusive environments and the feeling of being understood and accepted by others dealing with similar symptoms. 

Medication

If your healthcare provider thinks it’s necessary, antidepressant medication might be prescribed to help manage the symptoms that come with postpartum depression. Antidepressants tend to be taken daily to correct chemical imbalances in the brain, restoring normal mood and behavioral functions. 

It’s important to note that even though any medication taken when breastfeeding will enter your breast milk, many antidepressant medications can be taken with little risk of side effects for your baby. 

The FDA has approved a medicine called Zulresso (brexanolone) for treating PPD. It comes in injection form and has been demonstrated to be effective in improving depressive symptoms. 

Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)

If someone develops postpartum psychosis, a rarer and more severe condition than PPD, where a person may experience hallucinations, delusions, mood swings from mania to major depression, depersonalization, and thoughts of harming themselves or others, then electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be used as treatment. 

Complications and Risks of Untreated Postpartum Depression 

If PPD is left untreated, women might experience the following:

Research has indicated that children of untreated depressed mothers (compared to mothers who don’t have PPD) may experience:

Prevention and Self-Care Strategies

While it may not be possible to prevent the onset of postpartum depression completely, there are things you can do to put yourself in the best possible position during pregnancy and after childbirth. 

Prevention

Firstly, if any of the PPD risk factors apply to you, such as a history of depression, it’s important to tell your doctor this as soon as you are pregnant or are planning to get pregnant so that steps can be taken to make PPD less likely to occur. Other preventative measures include the following:

Additionally, prepare yourself for childbirth: go to classes, read books, follow pregnancy social media accounts. Inform yourself as much as possible so that there’ll be no surprises.  

Self-Care Strategies

If you are dealing with postpartum depression and are in need of a few self-care strategies to ease your symptoms and alleviate a depressed mood, Preamplume advises to try out the following: 

Taking care of yourself and meeting your own needs, such as seeking professional help, will allow you to better meet your child’s needs. Medical and mental health professionals that know about PPD want to help you feel less alone and find ways to enjoy parenthood more.

Final Thoughts 

Having a baby, while joyful, can certainly be hard work. And when you’re dealing with a mental health condition on top of that, things are much more difficult. The important thing to remember is that PPD is no one’s fault, and there’s no shame in admitting you have it or had it it should never make you feel like a less capable mother. Preamplume says, “Being a parent is so hard. Struggling with your mental health does not make you a bad mom.”

Being open about your experience and seeking support and treatment might help not only you but your child, too. 

If you or a loved one are dealing with PPD and need support, we have excellent, qualified therapists who specialize in dealing with this condition. Try searching our marketplace for a therapist who can offer professional advice and guidance. 

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
Therapist Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta Jaclyn Gulotta, LMHC

Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta is a licensed mental health counselor with over 10 years of experience in the mental health field. She helps individuals overcome numerous issues, including stress and anxiety disorders, self-esteem issues, relationship issues, depression, behavioral issues, and grief.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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