Is there a Cure for Postpartum Depression?
Depression is a mental health condition that is incredibly common. About one in five U.S. adults will struggle with some type of depressive disorder in their lifetime. Depression itself is really an umbrella term for different subsets of the disease. For women who are about to give birth or have recently given birth, they can develop postpartum depression disorder.
While the exact causes of any depressive disorder are not definitively known, fluctuating hormones and unique stressors surrounding the birth of an infant can put some women at risk of getting postpartum depression. One in seven women will suffer from the symptoms of postpartum depression. But is there a cure and what can women do to alleviate depressive symptoms?
What is postpartum depression?
Postpartum, or postnatal depression, is a clinical subset of major depressive disorder that affects women who’ve recently given birth. Although the symptoms can start right before birth and can happen up to one year after birth, most women will suffer from postpartum symptoms within the first three weeks after having a baby.
During the menstrual cycle, the hormones progesterone and estrogen are continuously rising and falling throughout the month. Once a woman becomes pregnant, these hormones are elevated and sustained for the duration of the pregnancy. After birth, those hormones will drop significantly, and attempt to go back to baseline levels. Hormone fluctuations are also further influenced by whether or not a woman is breastfeeding.
Couple that with the stress of giving birth and then having a newborn to care for, these hormonal fluctuations can trigger significant depressive symptoms in some women. Postpartum depression can happen to any woman who gives birth, but certain risk factors can contribute to the chances of getting it.
What risk factors can increase a woman’s chances of experiencing postpartum depression?
- Not having enough family or friend support when caring for the baby.
- Experiencing significant difficulties after giving birth, including financial stress or the death of a loved one.
- Having a traumatic birth experience.
- Giving birth to a baby with special needs.
- Having a high-needs baby with unpredictable hunger and sleep patterns.
- Having a family or personal history of clinical depression or anxiety.
While hormones can make a woman vulnerable to postpartum depression symptoms, environmental factors often trigger the disorder. If a woman experiences any of the following symptoms after having a baby and they last for at least two weeks, she needs to seek medical treatment:
- Feeling excessively guilty or inadequate about caring for the baby.
- Isolating herself from friends and family.
- Being afraid to stay alone with the baby.
- Being unable to sleep or relax even when the baby is sleeping or is with a caregiver.
- Excessive crying, sadness, or feeling “trapped.”
- Feeling unmotivated to care for herself.
- Anger or anxiety
- Feeling unable to bond with the baby.
- Eating too much or too little.
- Recurrent thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
Some women may feel stigmatized that they are feeling negative about the birth experience and new motherhood, and may be reluctant to seek help. But postpartum depression is not a character flaw or a weakness. It is a response to hormonal fluctuations and environmental stressors that are frequently out of a new mother’s control. Adjusting to life with a newborn is stressful for most new parents, and it’s crucial to talk to a doctor about these symptoms.
Failing to address postpartum depression can have a detrimental, devastating ripple effect across the woman’s entire family. Children of moms with untreated postpartum often have emotional or behavioral difficulties as they get older. They are also at risk of experiencing language delays.
New dads are at increased risk of getting depression when the baby is a newborn, but having a partner with postpartum depression increases their chances of getting the disorder as well. It’s crucial for new moms to have support in place to reach out for help from a mental health professional if they start to experience postpartum symptoms.
Is there a cure for postpartum depression?
Postpartum depression is like any other depressive disorder – there is no cure. But it is treatable. Postpartum depression has many similar symptoms as major depressive disorder. The condition, in most cases, responds favorably to similar treatment modalities, most notably the administration of SSRIs in conjunction with talk therapy. Most new mothers who receive treatment for postpartum will see a reduction in symptoms with medication and therapy.
However, the effects of antidepressant medications on nursing infants are not well understood. Many nursing mothers may not be comfortable using an antidepressant if they are breastfeeding. For doctors and patients, the choice to use antidepressants must be decided on a case-by-case basis.
In addition, many women who contract postpartum depression have a history of major depressive disorder. If medications did not work for them in the past, they might want to forego medication and opt for a deep brain stimulation technique. For moms of newborns and breastfeeding mothers, transcranial magnetic stimulation therapy is one of the most effective and safe methods for treating postpartum depression.
With TMS therapy, patients do not have to take medication or anesthetic, meaning their nursing infant is not exposed to these chemicals. Also, TMS treatment sessions are less than one hour, and patients usually do not have any side effects. This makes TMS treatment ideal for busy nursing mothers and parents of newborns. TMS works by using a magnetic coil placed on the forehead to stimulate areas of the brain that are known to play a role in depression symptoms.
For women with postpartum depression, getting treatment for the disorder can improve the health of the entire family unit. Leaving postpartum depression unaddressed and untreated also puts the mother at risk of contracting the disease with future pregnancies.