Postpartum or perinatal depression is a form of depression that occurs following the birth of a baby. It’s a relatively common but serious medical condition, affecting up to 1 in 7 new mothers after birth.

Postpartum depression can make you feel empty, emotionless, and sad. It can cause changes in mood, exhaustion, and a general sense of hopelessness for a long time after birth.

People should not take postpartum depression lightly. It’s a serious disorder, but various treatment programs can help people overcome it. If you’re experiencing postpartum depression, you need to know that you’re not alone and that you can recover.

Postpartum depression can affect people of all gender and sexual identities and all types of parents and their partners, be they birth, surrogate, or adoptive. There’s no singular ‘normal’ way to be a parent.

Feelings of postpartum and perinatal depression are always valid and are never your fault.

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Many people feel sad, empty, moody, or fatigued within a few days of giving birth — a condition nicknamed “baby blues.” But postpartum depression goes well beyond that, lasting for weeks after you give birth. Its symptoms can be severe and interfere with your ability to function.

Symptoms of postpartum depression can vary from person to person and even from day to day. While symptoms can develop anytime after childbirth, they often start within 1 to 3 weeks after having a baby.

Postpartum depression can make you feel disconnected from your baby. You may feel as though you don’t love your baby. These feelings are not your fault.

Other indications of postpartum depression include:

  • feeling sad or crying a lot
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • having thoughts of hurting the baby or yourself
  • not having an interest in the baby
  • having no energy or motivation
  • feeling worthless, guilty, or like you are a bad parent
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • change in relationship with food
  • feeling anxious
  • having chronic headaches, aches, pains, or stomach problems

But postpartum depression doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent, and it’s not your fault. If you notice symptoms, you need to tell a healthcare professional and seek treatment to feel better.

If you have symptoms of postpartum depression, you should contact a healthcare professional as soon as possible to start treatment.

Treatment for postpartum depression can include medication, certain forms of therapy, and support groups. Typically, a combination of medication and therapy is the most effective treatment.

Medications for postpartum depression

The most common type of medication for postpartum depression is antidepressants. These drugs can help relieve many of the symptoms of depression, but they take time — typically 6 to 8 weeks — to start working fully.

In some cases, you may need to try a few medications before finding one that works and has manageable side effects.

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These are a common antidepressant medication. SSRIs generally have fewer side effects than other antidepressants and include paroxetine (Paxil), fluoxetine (Prozac), and sertraline (Zoloft)
  • Atypical antidepressants. These target several neurotransmitters in the brain that affect mood. They may help treat depression that does not respond to SSRIs. Examples of atypical antidepressants include bupropion (Wellbutrin), trazodone (Desyrel), and nefazodone (Serzone).
  • Tricyclic antidepressants and monoamine oxidase inhibitors. These are two older classes of antidepressants that are less common.
  • Brexanolone: This is given by a healthcare professional through an IV over the course of 60 hours. Doctors often recommend brexanolone for patients who do not respond to other treatments.

All antidepressants can cause side effects, which may vary in severity. Side effects from antidepressants can include feelings of agitation or anxiety, digestive issues, and headaches, among others.

Chestfeeding people have options of medication and treatment. Your doctor can help choose one that’s a safe choice while chestfeeding.

Learn more about the types of depression medications and their side effects here.

Hormone therapy

After delivering a baby, levels of the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone drop dramatically.

Researchers theorize that this sudden change in hormones may play a role in people developing postpartum depression. For these reasons, hormone therapy may play a role in managing postpartum depression.

Side effects of hormone therapy with estrogen may include:

Therapy

Studies have found that a specific type of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can significantly improve postpartum depression symptoms. In people with postpartum depression, studies show that CBT alongside medication reduces symptoms more effectively than medication or other therapies alone.

CBT involves learning and using techniques and strategies that enable you to change your thinking patterns, recognize distortions in thinking, use problem-solving skills to cope with difficult situations, and develop greater confidence in your own abilities.

Natural remedies

Postpartum depression is a serious and debilitating condition, and you should not attempt to treat it without a healthcare professional’s input.

But at-home practices like eating a healthy diet, regularly engaging in gentle exercise, practicing meditation or yoga, and spending time in nature may help you feel better, especially when used alongside traditional treatments like medication and therapy.

Learn more about natural remedies for postpartum depression.

Self-care

Postpartum depression can feel exhausting and isolating, so it’s important to take time to yourself and reach out to family and friends and ask for help when you need it. Joining support groups can also help.

The exact cause isn’t clear, but some factors may contribute to postpartum depression. Postpartum depressive episodes can result from a combination of physical changes and emotional stressors.

Physical factors

While you’re pregnant, your levels of estrogen and progesterone are higher than usual. Within hours of giving birth, hormone levels drop back to their previous state.

This abrupt change may play a role in the development of postpartum depression.

Other physical factors that may contribute to the development of postpartum depression include:

  • low thyroid hormone levels
  • sleep deprivation
  • underlying medical conditions
  • drug and alcohol misuse

Emotional factors

Research suggests that undergoing stressful experiences during pregnancy can significantly impact the likelihood of developing postpartum depression.

Emotional stressors may include:

  • recent divorce
  • death of a loved one
  • financial stress

Learn more about the causes of postpartum depression here.

People experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression for more than 2 weeks within the first year of giving birth should contact a healthcare professional for a postpartum depression screening.

A medical professional will be able to assess your symptoms and medical history to reach a diagnosis.

They’ll typically look out for and ask about:

  • depression symptoms
  • disturbances to sleep patterns
  • feelings of decreased energy
  • feelings of irritability

As part of the diagnosis, a doctor will also identify other risk factors for depression and associated conditions. These can include:

  • recent stressful life events
  • a history of depression
  • outside stressors
  • your medication history

Your doctor may also order a blood test to check if a disorder like thyroid disease or a nutrient deficiency may be contributing to your depression.

Postpartum depression is common and may not be entirely preventable. But knowing the signs of postpartum depression may help you manage the condition and get treatment faster should you need it.

Some studies suggest that certain interventions, including treatment with certain antidepressants and nutrients during and immediately after pregnancy, may reduce your risk of developing severe postpartum depression.

Additionally, participating in interpersonal therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy during and after pregnancy may reduce the risk of postpartum depression in those at an increased risk of developing it.

You may also be able to reduce your chances of developing postpartum depression by:

  • finding a support system of friends and families before your baby is born
  • taking antenatal and postnatal educational classes
  • having an arrangement for child care in place so you can take a break
  • maintaining a balanced diet and trying to get some exercise and fresh air every day
  • getting adequate sleep and general rest
  • reducing alcohol intake or avoiding it altogether

Without treatment, postpartum depression can progressively worsen. It’s most dangerous when it leads to thoughts of suicide, harming yourself, or harming others. If these thoughts begin to occur, medical intervention is necessary.

Severe postpartum depression may be life threatening, but effective treatment options exist.

The most severe form of postpartum depression is postpartum psychosis. Postpartum psychosis is rare, affecting 1 to 2 per 1,000 women after childbirth. It typically develops suddenly within weeks after birth, but cases have occurred up to 6 months after delivery.

The earliest symptoms of postpartum psychosis are restlessness, irritability, and insomnia. Hallucinations —when you see, hear, or smell things that aren’t there — and delusions are also common.

Postpartum psychosis is a psychiatric emergency, and the risk of hurting yourself or your baby — either deliberately or accidentally — is real.

Postpartum anxiety is even more common than postpartum depression, with some research suggesting that it affects 20-25 percent of new mothers. Postpartum anxiety often occurs alongside postpartum depression. It can occur anytime within the first year after giving birth.

Common symptoms of postpartum anxiety include episodes of hyperventilation and panic attacks. Other symptoms of postpartum anxiety include:

Learn more about postpartum anxiety.

Postpartum OCD is less common than postpartum depression and anxiety, with a prevalence rate of between 2-9 percent. It usually develops within a week of delivery.

Obsessions could be about anything, but they’re likely to focus on the baby’s safety. If you have postpartum OCD, you might engage in ritualistic behaviors related to those thoughts. These may include:

  • repetitive organizing and cleaning, and obsessing over germs
  • repeatedly checking on your baby during the night
  • mental compulsions, like constantly praying for your baby’s safety

A combination of medication and psychotherapy can be effective in treating postpartum OCD.

Learn more about treatments for OCD.

The partners of birthing parents can also develop a type of postpartum depression called paternal postnatal depression.

Males are less likely to report symptoms of depression, but estimates say between 8-10 percent of fathers have feelings of depression in the first year postpartum. First-time fathers tend to have a higher level of anxiety in the weeks following birth.

There are numerous other potential risk factors that might contribute to the development of postpartum depression in males, including a history of depression and relationship problems.

Depression can be treated with antidepressant medications, either alone or with therapy.

Learn more about postpartum depression in males here.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression, you should contact a healthcare professional as soon as possible to discuss treatment and address your physical symptoms.

They can also refer you to a therapist or other local resources to help you navigate the postpartum period and your diagnosis.

These organizations can help guide you to the appropriate resources:

  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): A mental illness organization dedicated to supporting and building better lives for Americans affected by mental illness.
  • Postpartum Support International: This resource offers education, online support, and information about local resources. You can reach them by calling 800-944-4773.
  • Postpartum Depression Support Groups in the U.S. and Canada: This is a comprehensive list of support groups around the United States (by state) and Canada.
  • Postpartum Progress: This organization has information and support for pregnant people and new parents who have postpartum depression and anxiety.