Postpartum depression is moderate to severe depression in a woman after she has given birth. It may occur soon after delivery or up to a year later. Most of the time, it occurs within the first 3 months after delivery.
The exact causes of postpartum depression are unknown. Changes in hormone levels during and after pregnancy may affect a woman’s mood. Many non-hormonal factors may also affect mood during this period:
Changes in your body from pregnancy and delivery
Changes in work and social relationships
Having less time and freedom for yourself
Lack of sleep
Worries about your ability to be a good mother
You may have a higher chance of postpartum depression if you:
Are under age 20
Currently abuse alcohol, take illegal substances, or smoke (these also cause serious health risks for the baby)
Did not plan the pregnancy, or had mixed feelings about the pregnancy
Had depression, bipolar disorder, or an anxiety disorder before your pregnancy, or with a past pregnancy
Had a stressful event during the pregnancy or delivery, including personal illness, death or illness of a loved one, a difficult or emergency delivery, premature delivery, or illness or birth defect in the baby
Have a close family member who has had depression or anxiety
Have a poor relationship with your significant other or are single
Have money or housing problems
Have little support from family, friends, or your spouse or partner
Feelings of anxiety, irritation, tearfulness, and restlessness are common in the week or two after pregnancy. These feelings are often called the postpartum or "baby blues." They almost always go away soon, without the need for treatment.
Postpartum depression may occur when the baby blues do not fade away or when signs of depression start 1 or more months after childbirth.
The symptoms of postpartum depression are the same as the symptoms of depression that occurs at other times in life. Along with a sad or depressed mood, you may have some of the following symptoms:
Agitation or irritability
Changes in appetite
Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
Feeling like you're withdrawn or unconnected
Lack of pleasure or interest in most or all activities
Loss of concentration
Loss of energy
Problems doing tasks at home or work
Thoughts of death or suicide
A mother with postpartum depression may also:
Be unable to care for herself or her baby
Be afraid to be alone with her baby
Have negative feelings toward the baby or even think about harming the baby (Although these feelings are scary, they are almost never acted on. Still you should tell your doctor about them right away.)
Worry intensely about the baby, or have little interest in the baby
Exams and Tests
There is no single test to diagnose postpartum depression. Diagnosis is based on the symptoms you describe to your doctor or nurse.
Women with postpartum depression should have blood tests to screen for medical causes of depression.
A new mother who has any symptoms of postpartum depression should contact her doctor or nurse right away to get help.
Here are some other helpful tips:
Ask your partner, family, and friends for help with the baby's needs and in the home.
Don't hide your feelings. Talk about them with your partner, family, and friends.
Don't make any major life changes during pregnancy or right after giving birth.
Don't try to do too much, or to be perfect.
Make time to go out, visit friends, or spend time alone with your partner.
Rest as much as you can. Sleep when the baby is sleeping.
Talk with other mothers or join a support group.
The treatment for depression after birth often includes medication, therapy, or both. Breastfeeding will play a role in what medicine your doctor recommends. You may be referred to a mental health specialist. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT) are types of talk therapy that often help postpartum depression.
Support groups may be helpful, but they should not replace medication or talk therapy if you have postpartum depression.
Having good social support from family, friends, and coworkers may help reduce the seriousness of postpartum depression.
Medication and professional talk therapy can often successfully reduce or eliminate symptoms.
Left untreated, postpartum depression can last for months or years.
The potential long-term complications are the same as in major depression. Untreated postpartum depression may put you at risk of harming yourself or your baby.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your doctor if you experience any of the following:
Your baby blues do not go away after 2 weeks
Symptoms of depression get more intense
Symptoms of depression begin at any time after delivery, even many months later
It is hard for you to perform tasks at work or home
You cannot care for yourself or your baby
You have thoughts of harming yourself or your baby
You develop thoughts that are not based in reality, or you start hearing or seeing things that other people cannot
Do not be afraid to seek help right away if you feel overwhelmed and are afraid that you may hurt your baby.
Having good social support from family, friends, and coworkers may help reduce the seriousness of postpartum depression, but may not prevent it.
Women who had postpartum depression after past pregnancies may be less likely to develop postpartum depression again if they start taking antidepressant medications after they deliver. Talk therapy may also be helpful in preventing depression.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013.
Cohen LS, Wang B, Nonacs R, et al. Treatment of mood disorders during pregnancy and postpartum. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2010;33:273-93.
Timothy Rogge, MD, Medical Director, Family Medical Psychiatry Center, Kirkland, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.