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You’ve just had your baby. This is supposed to be a happy time, so why are you feeling so down? Sure, you’re exhausted and crying a lot, but don’t all new mothers go through this?
Most mothers do experience feelings of sadness and loss after childbirth—a condition typically known as the “baby blues.” But if these feelings intensify and persist, you could be suffering from something more serious: postpartum depression, or PPD. This disorder, which can range from mild to severe depression, is an insidious illness. Because negative thinking is a hallmark of PPD, you may not even realize that you’re in a depression and need help.
Shortly after the birth of her seventh child, entertainer Marie Osmond fell into a deep depression. “How could I be so selfish?” she recalls in her book, Behind the Smile: My Journey out of Postpartum Depression (Warner Books, 2001). “Here I had seven beautiful children, a 13-year marriage and a long-lasting career, so many things that other people would love to have. Why am I such a failure?” Like most women with PPD, Osmond had no idea there were thousands of women just like her.
Postpartum depression is extremely common, affecting about one in eight new mothers. It is also, fortunately, very treatable. That’s why it’s important to be alert to the signs of PPD so you can get help before it becomes debilitating.
What it looks like> Postpartum depression typically comes on three to four weeks after delivery and, depending on the stress in a woman’s life, can last from three months to a year. It looks just like a regular depression, with intense feelings of sadness and hopelessness, loss of appetite, weight loss and difficulty sleeping. (Experts believe that Andrea Yates, who allegedly killed her five children, most likely did not suffer from postpartum depression, but postpartum psychosis, a rare and far more serious psychotic disorder that surfaces almost immediately after childbirth.) Women with PPD can suffer intense anxiety about harm coming to the baby, or they may feel detached from the baby. Yet because many new mothers experience these problems, PPD can be easily overlooked. “One of the things that’s tricky in making the diagnosis is that a lot of symptoms of depression are the same as when a woman is in the postpartum period,” says Victoria Hendrick, M.D., director of the UCLA Pregnancy and Postpartum Mood Disorders Program.
Donna Freed, a stay-at-home mother of three in Goleta, Calif., is a textbook example of that dilemma. Two months after the birth of her youngest child, she suddenly couldn’t eat and sleep. Even more disturbing, she also began having thoughts that something was going to hurt her daughter. “I was afraid of doing anything with my baby,” she says. “I was afraid if I picked her up, I would drop her. I was afraid I would lose control and hurt her.”
But when Freed called her obstetrician and told him she was having thoughts about inadvertently injuring her child, he reportedly said, “If you don’t think about those thoughts, they’ll go away.” Freed eventually was able to find a psychiatrist who properly diagnosed her depression and put her on antidepressants.