As beautiful as the earliest moments of becoming a mom can be, there is a dark side people rarely talk about. It’s more than the overwhelming feeling of excitement and uncertainty. Postpartum depression is a mental illness that’s said to affect one in five new mothers at some point in their pregnancy — and it’s likely to continue after the birth. Here, the postpartum depression symptoms to look out for…
What exactly is postpartum depression?
It’s common for new moms to feel overwhelmed, have mood swings (tears are bountiful), experience insomnia and feel anxious. But these feelings are generally fleeting. “[The] baby blues is mild and only lasts a few days; it does not persist or cause difficulties with normal functioning,” says psychiatrist Dr Carina Marsay.
When those feelings stick around like a bad baby rash, they can lead to a more severe condition called postpartum depression (PPD).
PPD can be managed effectively once the new mom is aware of the condition. The problem? There still exists a great amount of stigma around it. So let’s get talking…
Postpartum depression symptoms — what are the signs?
“If you have a low mood all day, every day, and can’t enjoy things you used to enjoy, for more than two weeks, then you may have postnatal depression,” says Dr. Marsay.
Other postpartum depression symptoms include:
- Sadness, weepiness, low mood, irritability, impaired concentration and feeling overwhelmed.
- Anxiety and agitation, ruminating or obsessional thoughts about the pregnancy or baby.
- Severe hypervigilance of the baby, including an inability to sleep at night when the baby is sleeping.
- Feeling detached from the infant.
- Lack of interest in holding or caring for the baby.
- Guilt that they are not able to enjoy the baby.
Risks of untreated depression in moms
“Untreated antenatal depression can increase the risk of preterm birth and low birth weight infants,” says Dr Marsay. An increase in stress levels can affect the foetus, she warns. The hormone cortisol rises when a mother is under stress or feeling anxious. This affects the development of the baby’s stress response, which continues to impact the child throughout his/her life.
Other risks include:
- Delaying initiation of breastfeeding and early cessation.
- Malnutrition and poor growth in infants and children.
- Incomplete immunisations and increased diarrhoeal disease.
- Impaired cognitive and motor development.
- Impaired emotional development and attachment.
Could this be you, or someone you know?
A new mom has experienced a great deal of physical and hormonal changes. Their lives are about to — and eventually do — change drastically. Dramatic change can be a trigger for mental illness, and pregnant moms are particularly vulnerable.
There can be so much pressure on the new mom to be happy about a healthy birth, and those around new mothers can easily dismiss her feelings of sadness and irritability as mere baby blues. It’s important that the community around a new mom knows the signs of depression. According to the WHO, depression in pregnant women is said to be higher in moms living in developing countries, so it’s even more pertinent in countries like SA.
Countering the stigma and getting help
Public notions around mental illness are beginning to change as we see a rise in worldwide diagnoses — and people opening up about their diagnosis. A number of celeb moms, including musician Adele and host Chrissy Teigen, have experienced postpartum depression.
In other good news, postpartum depression is treatable through medication and non-medication options, says Dr Marsay. [T]herapy is very helpful, especially cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).” New moms can also get help through prescription meds after a thorough mental health assessment. “The most commonly used antidepressants are a group of drugs called SSRIs,” she says.
It was previously thought that medications treating mental illnesses would be harmful to unborn babies. “[But] the risks posed to a foetus from antidepressants are consistently overestimated,” says Dr Bavi Vythilingum of the South Africa Society of Psychiatrists. “[W]hile the risks of untreated depression are consistently underestimated because of the pervasive stigma against mental illness,” she warns.