The hormonal rush of pregnancy and giving birth can wreak havoc on a woman’s emotional state. The mood swings that often accompany pregnancy don’t always go away once the baby is born. As many as one in four women experience clinical depression starting around four weeks after giving birth. Postpartum depression is more than simply low mood, or the lack of energy that comes from taking care of a new baby. Like other forms of depression, it is a potentially serious mental illness.
While new motherhood brings with it a certain amount of worry, postpartum depression goes beyond that. Lasting feelings of being overwhelmed, of regret over having a child, of not feeling any connection to the newborn or to anything at all, of emotional numbness, of guilt over feeling like a bad mother, or of wanting to run away and leave the baby behind are not simply the emotional roller-coaster of new motherhood; they may be signs of a serious illness—though often a treatable one.
There are some risk factors to be aware of. A woman with a prior history of clinical depression is prone to return to that state after having a baby. Women who are pregnant in stressful situations—such as young motherhood, unplanned pregnancy, facing motherhood alone, relationship difficulties, or financial problems—are more likely to develop postpartum depression, and lack of support is the biggest single risk factor. Sometimes, depression develops as a response to a temperamental or colicky baby; it can be triggered, in part, by fear of being an inadequate mother, and a baby who is responding poorly to parenting can seriously exacerbate that fear. Smoking makes the postpartum depression risk worse, even among women who quit for the duration of the pregnancy if they resumed after.
Another risk factor is the perceived—and often real—pressure to be The Perfect Mother. Although no mother is perfect, women are often made to feel as though the tiniest misstep during the child’s infancy can ruin them for life. This results in every decision becoming fraught with worry, and new mothers may freeze up as a result. One decision that is highly anxiety-provoking in this way is weather or not to breastfeed. Interestingly, while the dire consequences commonly predicted for formula-fed infants are often exaggerated if not invented, breastfeeding does lower the mother’s risk of postpartum depression. One reason for this may be that new mothers who attempt to breastfeed but are unsuccessful are more likely to develop depression, but breastfeeding also promotes mother-child bonding.