Postpartum Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety and depression are leading postpartum complications, and, unfortunately, are often overlooked by providers and patients. Forty percent of patients do not attend a postpartum visit. Others are unaware of the signs and symptoms of perinatal anxiety and depression and do not ask for help. Diagnosis is complicated by the shame that many women feel about admitting their negative emotions when society expects them to be exuberant over their newborn. Lack of diagnosis and treatment has serious consequences as these symptoms have the potential to interfere with successful pregnancy and bonding. Once identified, the conditions are most often treatable with adequate support, education, and/or medication.
Diagnosing Baby Blues vs Postpartum Anxiety and Depression
Postpartum anxiety and depression occur more commonly in individuals with previous psychiatric diagnoses. However, they also occur in women with no previous history. Many women and providers attribute postpartum mood symptoms to temporary hormonal shifts. Hormones indeed contribute to shifting moods, but are more likely to cause “baby blues.” Baby blues occur in 80% of women and are characterized by sadness and moodiness beginning 2-3 days after birth, and typically dissipate after two weeks. Postpartum depression lasts longer and is more severe than baby blues. When symptoms endure past two weeks and/or interfere with functioning, a diagnosis is suspected. Postpartum depression and anxiety can occur up to one year after birth. Symptoms can include some or all of the below:
- Difficulty bonding with your baby
- Excessive crying
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Loss of appetite or eating much more than usual
- Inability to sleep (insomnia) or sleeping too much
- Overwhelming fatigue or loss of energy
- Reduced interest and pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
- Intense irritability and anger
- Fear that you’re not a good mother
- Feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt or inadequacy
- Diminished ability to think clearly, concentrate or make decisions
- Severe anxiety and panic attacks
- Constant worry
- Thoughts of harming yourself or your baby
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
The Importance of Early Detection and Treatment
It’s important for patients, families, and providers to monitor mood and irritability in post-partum women. Awareness of nonverbal cues such as withdrawal, distraction, and/or restlessness is critical as many women are hesitant to admit their history and symptoms. Recognizing and treating these symptoms early positively impacts infants’ psychiatric and neurological development. For example, mothers with depression and anxiety are more likely to have poor nutrition and higher rates of preterm birth and low birth rate. Studies have shown that babies and toddlers of mothers with postpartum depression are less adaptable, more likely to suffer from psychiatric conditions, and have lower cognitive ability. It is incumbent on the provider to screen for these symptoms. Medical providers, psychiatrists, and therapists can create a safe space by acting nonjudgmentally of the difficulties associated with pregnancy and newborns.
Repeat pregnancies in Women with a History of Postpartum Psychiatric Symptoms
Women respond to each pregnancy differently. One episode of postpartum depression, anxiety or both, does not automatically mean that you will have a second. However, it should alert you to seek psychiatric monitoring and have a low threshold for seeking support during your pregnancy. There is no harm in reaching out for assistance early. Once you identify a problem, you can discuss different options with a mental health care provider and together choose one that takes into consideration your symptoms and personal choice.
Treatment for Postpartum Depression and Anxiety
The treatment for postpartum depression and anxiety depends on the severity of the symptoms. Talking through your concerns with a mental health provider helps in several ways. First, it decreases the feelings of loneliness and isolation that one often feels during periods of despair and vulnerability. Suffering is difficult enough, but you should not have to bear your feelings alone. In addition, therapy can help you to manage your feelings, problem solve, set boundaries and goals, and approach situations with a new perspective. Psychoeducation can help to ease the pressure that new mothers experience. For example, not every newborn is interested in nursing. Mothers need to learn that they are ENOUGH. Self-care, sleep, hydration and proper nutrition are important to the individual and her baby. An individualized and well thought out discussion between the patient and their medical, psychiatric and nursing team can be useful to set realistic goals that meet the needs of the entire family.
Sometimes, even with proper support and psychotherapy, women suffer with feelings that interfere with their self-care, care of the newborn, and/or quality of life. In these instances, your provider might suggest antidepressants. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, certain medications will be less likely to interfere with fetal development or enter the breast milk. Your provider will discuss the risks and benefits of beginning an antidepressant, and together you will determine whether it is the right decision for you and your family.
At The Midtown Practice, Jordana Cotton DNP, PMHNP-BC, PMHCNS, has specific experience with peripartum and postpartum depression and anxiety. Initial conversations will address whether she is the right person to help, and if so, Jordana will work with you to navigate and treat your symptoms. She has helped women with depression and anxiety across the lifespan, from the time prior to pregnancy, during times of infertility, pregnancy, loss, and of course postpartum anxiety and depression. Early detection and treatment can impact quality of life, prognosis, and emotional and physical well-being of you and your children. Please do not hesitate to contact us so you do not need to face your difficulties without proper support.
- Kingston, D., Tough, S. & Whitfield, H. Prenatal and Postpartum Maternal Psychological Distress and Infant Development: A Systematic Review. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev43,683–714 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10578-012-0291-4
- Priest SR, Austin MP, Barnett BB, Buist A (2008) A psychosocial risk assessment model (PRAM) for use with pregnant and postpartum women in primary care settings. Arch Womens Ment Health 11:307–317
About the Author
This article was written by Jordana Cotton, DNP, PMHNP-BC. Get to know Jordana and schedule a consultation. She’s here to help women with postpartum anxiety and depression.