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Postpartum Depression

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Updated September 19, 2011

Long before postpartum depression was identified, it was recognized that women sometimes experienced psychiatric illness following childbirth. In 460 BC, Hippocrates described "puerperal fever," which he theorized was caused by suppressed lochial discharge (the blood, tissue and mucus discharged from the vagina following birth) which was transported to the brain, where it produced "agitation, delirium and attacks of mania." In the 11th century, the gynecologist Trotula of Salerno speculated: "if the womb is too moist, the brain is filled with water, and the moisture running over to the eyes, compels them to involuntarily shed tears." In the 18th century, puerperal psychosis and depression were specifically defined by Marce in his work Treatise on Insanity in Pregnant and Lactating Women, but attempts to understand postpartum mental illness finally became more systematic in the mid-19th century when Esquirol wrote of the "mental alienation of those recently confined and of nursing women."

Today, however, we know much more about postpartum depression; and, with proper education, support and medical care, it is treatable.

The Types of Postpartum Depression

The types of postpartum depression run on a spectrum of severity, ranging from mild baby blues to postpartum major depression to postpartum psychosis.

Symptoms of Postpartum Depression

Up to 80% of all new mothers will experience mild baby blues, while about 10% of women will develop postpartum depression. Are you experiencing any of these symptoms of a postpartum affective disorder?

Causes of Postpartum Depression

Postpartum depression is thought to be triggered by the hormonal changes that follow childbirth. During pregnancy, the levels of the hormones, estrogen and progesterone rise greatly. Within about 24 hours of giving birth, however, the levels of these hormones quickly return to normal. Women who are prone to postpartum depression are thought to have brains which are unusually sensitive to these changes.

Tips for Preventing Postpartum Depression

Although many women with postpartum depression will have severe or lasting symptoms which require treatment with medication and/or therapy, other women can overcome their milder baby blues with good self-care and support from their friends and family.

Dietary Changes Which May Prevent Postpartum Depression

Although the data is mixed, some researchers say that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding may be able to reduce their chances of having postpartum depression and improve their baby's neurological development by consuming an essential fatty acid called DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid found primarily in fish like tuna and salmon as well as in algae.

When You Should See a Doctor for Postpartum Depression

There is no shame in seeking help for your depression. If you are experiencing postpartum depression symptoms or are just unsure about how you are handling motherhood, do not hesitate to ask for help.

Postpartum Depression Treatments

Several treatment options are available for postpartum depression, including antidepressants, psychotherapy and counseling. For women who are breastfeeding and concerned about their medication passing into their milk, non-drug options like psychotherapy and counseling may be of particular interest.

Are Drugs Necessary for Treating Postpartum Depression?

Many mothers with postpartum depression are reluctant to take antidepressants because they are concerned that they won't be able to breastfeed or because of the side effects associated with antidepressants. The good news for these moms, according to a 2007 review of the published data, is that non-drug interventions can often help reduce the symptoms of postpartum depression.

Fathers Get Postpartum Depression Too

You may think that postpartum depression only affects women. Surprisingly, a 2008 study found that dads are also prone to depression following the birth of a child.

Sources:

Steiner M. "Postpartum psychiatric disorders." Can J Psychiatry 35 (1990): 89-95.

Thurtle V. "Post-natal depression: the relevance of sociological approaches." J Adv Nurs 22.3 (1995): 416-424.

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