It’s not surprising that many new moms find themselves in a funk right after having a baby. Hormones are out of whack, sleep is a distant memory, and your entire life has been turned upside down by an adorable little squish, who is (no pressure!) totally dependent on you for everything.
So, yeah, a mild case of the “baby blues” is both normal and understandable.
But for many women, the funk doesn’t go away after those first few weeks. According to the American Psychological Association, as many as 16 percent of women experience postpartum depression, a more prolonged and severe illness.
“Postpartum depression and the baby blues share many symptoms, including mood swings, crying jags, sadness, insomnia, and irritability,” says Dr. Michelle Golland, a clinical psychologist in Hollywood, CA. But while the baby blues only last a few weeks, PPD symptoms stick around longer, and symptoms can be more severe, including finding difficulty in caring for your newborn and suicidal thoughts.
Many people think of postpartum depression as something that only strikes during the first few months of mommyhood. New moms are typically screened for postpartum depression after the birth and again at their post-baby checkup.
But PPD can actually strike anytime within the first postpartum year. Researchers at Olmsted Medical Center recently discovered that when follow-up screenings were given at the six-month and one-year marks, there was a significant increase in the number of PPD cases. “This may not be ‘late-onset’ PPD. It may be the emergence of symptoms that have been lingering under the surface, ” says Karen Kleiman, MSW, LCSW, founder of The Postpartum Stress Center and author of Therapy and the Postpartum Woman.
How can postpartum depression go unnoticed for so long?
For starters, the symptoms of depression mirror the symptoms of…well…having a newborn in the house. You’re stressed, you’re exhausted, you see your friends less, and you find yourself weeping at home makeover shows. (Er…so I’ve heard.)
Kleiman says moms, “may confuse their symptoms for ‘normal’ postpartum experiences and not be able to tell the difference between being tired and being unable to function well.”
At that first post-baby checkup, none of those things might seem worth mentioning. But screen again at six months, and a woman may think: Hey, this has been going on for a while now, and it doesn’t feel normal.
Even if a new mom does suspect something’s wrong, she may put off reporting her symptoms due to the stigma surrounding mental illness—especially since societal expectations tell her she’s expected to be bursting with baby bliss. “They may be getting messages from their support network to ‘be strong’ or ‘power through,’” Kleiman says. “They may feel if they tell anyone what they are really thinking, someone will think they are crazy—or worse, take their baby away from them.”
The recent research indicates that additional screenings could play a key role in helping to identify more women who may be at risk, so they’re able to get the treatment they need. “Postpartum women should be screened repeatedly,” Kleiman says. “A low screen score does not necessarily mean she is out of the woods. A woman is most at risk for emotional illness during and after pregnancy than at any other time in her life. She should be monitored closely during these times.”
Until these additional screenings become the norm, it’s important to tune in to your own emotions—and listen to concerned friends who may be able to recognize your symptoms before you can. There is no shame in seeking help.
“Please remember that self-care is not selfish and that your baby needs you to be emotionally well,” says Dr. Golland, who struggled with PPD herself as a new mom. “Give yourself breaks when needed: baths, time with friends, and whatever else your brain and body need to feel solid and grounded. It’s also critical that you get enough sleep; being sleep-deprived can have a snowball effect for new moms leading to PPD. Talk about how you’re feeling and the symptoms you’re struggling to manage. I would also encourage fathers and other family members to know the warning signs of PPD and to intervene when needed.”