Postpartum Depression: What Is It and How Long Does it Last?

August 23, 2020

Giving birth to a child is a major life event that can cause a wide range of feelings, regardless if  it’s a woman’s first baby or her fourth. Many women experience feelings of sadness, worry, and fatigue following the birth of a baby–these feelings are known as the “baby blues.” 

An estimated 80 percent of mothers experience feelings associated with the baby blues, which typically appear a day or two after the birth and last for a period of about two weeks. 

For an estimated 15 percent of women, these feelings don’t go away and instead increase in the weeks following the birth, in a condition known as postpartum depression. What exactly is postpartum depression and how long does it last?

What is postpartum depression?

Postpartum depression has similar symptoms to the baby blues, but it is a serious mental illness that lasts for an extended period of time. When symptoms of the baby blues last longer than two weeks, women may have postpartum depression. When experienced during pregnancy, postpartum depression is called perinatal depression, and some women experience both perinatal and postpartum depression. 

The condition affects the brain and causes both psychological and physical symptoms, including severe mood swings, a sense of hopelessness, and exhaustion. Women experiencing postpartum depression may have difficulty caring for the baby or for themselves. Symptoms of postpartum depression include:

  • Depressed mood or severe mood swings
  • Difficulty bonding with the baby
  • Changes in appetite, such as eating much less or much more than usual
  • Overwhelming fatigue and loss of energy
  • Intense irritability and anger
  • Hopelessness
  • Reduced ability to concentrate, think clearly, or make decisions
  • Severe anxiety and panic attacks
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
  • Thoughts of harming yourself or the baby
  • Restlessness
  • Feelings of shame, inadequacy, worthlessness, or guilt
  • Fear that you’re not a good mother
  • Reduced interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
  • Inability to sleep or sleeping too much
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Excessive crying

What is postpartum anxiety?

In recent years, postpartum depression has finally received some well deserved attention and awareness, but you may be less familiar with postpartum anxiety. 

Postpartum anxiety is experienced by approximately six percent of pregnant women (when this occurs, it is called perinatal anxiety) and ten percent of postpartum women. Some women experience just postpartum anxiety, while others experience postpartum anxiety in conjunction with postpartum depression. While nearly all new parents worry about their children and wonder about whether they are hitting the right milestones, staying healthy and safe, and more, sometimes, this worry can become out of control and morph into postpartum anxiety disorder. 

Symptoms of postpartum anxiety disorder can be both psychological and physical and can substantially alter the lifestyle of a new parent. Symptoms of postpartum anxiety include:

  • Constant or nearly constant worry and anxiety that does not ease
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of dread about things that you are worried might happen
  • Heart palpitations
  • Disrupted sleep (unable to sleep while the baby is sleeping peacefully)
  • Hyperventilation
  • Racing thoughts
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or vomiting

There are several subtypes of postpartum anxiety, including postpartum panic disorder and postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder. People who experience postpartum OCD may have obsessive, recurring thoughts about the baby being harmed or dying, and begin to develop ritual behaviors associated with these thoughts, such as constantly checking if the baby is breathing or obsessively cleaning every surface that they touch. 

People with postpartum panic disorder have similar thoughts about harm coming to their child, but they have panic attacks related to these thoughts. 

Postpartum panic attack symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Racing heart
  • Feeling like you are choking or unable to breathe
  • Intense fear of death for you or your baby

What are the causes of postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety?

Researchers don’t entirely understand why some women experience postpartum depression and anxiety while others do not. It is believed that there are both physical and emotional factors that play a role in the onset of postpartum depression and anxiety, and some women are more at risk than others. 

Physical factors that play a role in postpartum depression and anxiety include:

  • Low thyroid hormone levels
  • Inadequate diet
  • Drug and alcohol misuse
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Underlying medical conditions

Emotional factors that play a role in the development of postpartum depression and anxiety include:

  • Recent divorce or death of a loved one
  • Social isolation
  • Lack of support
  • Serious health problems in mother or child
  • Financial burdens

Women are more likely to experience postpartum depression when they are younger, have a lower education level, are publicly insured, or are African-American. Women who have had anxiety issues before their pregnancies are more likely to experience postpartum anxiety, as are women with a family history of postpartum anxiety. Other factors that increase the risk of experiencing postpartum anxiety include a history of an eating disorder, history of intense mood-related issues around your period, and previous pregnancy loss or death of an infant.

How long does postpartum depression last?

It can be a bit difficult to determine if you’re suffering from postpartum depression right away, as up to 80 percent of women commonly experience the baby blues in the first two weeks after pregnancy. 

However, when symptoms of depression and extreme exhaustion last longer than two weeks after the birth of the baby, you may be experiencing postpartum depression. Most doctors consider the postpartum period to include the first four to six weeks after a birth, and a majority of cases of postpartum depression do begin during this time. 

It is also important to note that postpartum depression can begin during pregnancy or can begin any time in the first year after the baby is born, so patients should still take their symptoms seriously, even if they occur outside of the typical four to six week window. There is no specific timeline for how long postpartum depression lasts, but a 2014 literature review found that postpartum symptoms are generally most severe when they first begin and gradually ease over time. That same literature review found that many cases of postpartum depression resolved within three to six months of when they began. I

t is not uncommon for cases to continue past the six month point, with an estimated 30 to 50 percent of women still meeting the criteria for postpartum depression up to one year after giving birth. Postpartum depression is likely to be resolved more quickly with treatment and support.

Can men develop postpartum depression?

It is possible for men to develop postpartum depression. When this occurs, it is called paternal postnatal depression, and the symptoms are similar to those experienced by women. An estimated 25 percent of fathers experience feelings of depression in the first year following the birth of a child, and first-time fathers are more likely to suffer from anxiety. 

It can be more difficult to recognize the symptoms of paternal postnatal depression in fathers, as the symptoms tend to come on more gradually and men do not have follow up appointments with doctors like new mothers do. Fathers are at an increased risk of experiencing depression if their partner has depression or if they have previously experienced depression or another mood disorder.

What is the treatment for postpartum depression?

It is estimated that only 15 percent of women suffering from postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety get professional help for their condition. This may be due to a number of factors, including feelings of shame or guilt associated with the depression, lack of financial resources or an available support system for childcare, and lack of awareness regarding the condition. 

There are many ways to treat postpartum depression, including talk therapy, antidepressants, or antianxiety medication. 

One of the most important things a woman can do is try to find support, whether it is from their partner, family, friends, or other new mothers who can help with day to day tasks and also offer emotional support. 

Many women worry that they do not have enough time or money to seek professional help or afford prescription medications. However, online mental health clinics like YANA offer affordable mental health care, convenient access to physicians, and prescription medications all at a low rate. Virtual mental health services are particularly helpful for new mothers, who may have concerns about finding childcare or bringing their baby with them to appointments, may worry about the costs associated with becoming a new parent, or who may be concerned about the stigma associated with seeking mental health care. 

So, if you’re feeling like the baby blues are lasting a little longer than expected, consider taking advantage of quick, easy to access mental health resources at the tips of your fingertips with YANA. 

Sources:

https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/postpartum-depression

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/perinatal-depression/index.shtml

https://www.womenshealth.gov/mental-health/mental-health-conditions/postpartum-depression

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/postpartum-depression/symptoms-causes/syc-20376617

https://www.healthline.com/health/pregnancy/postpartum-anxiety

https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/how-long-does-postpartum-depression-last

https://journals.lww.com/hrpjournal/Fulltext/2014/01000/The_Course_of_Postpartum_Depression_A_Review