Healthy Mama: On Postpartum Depression

By Shannon Magsam

When my sister had her second baby, I came down to stay for a week (the first time around we’d had our babies six weeks apart and lived around the corner from each other, so we were already literally “there” for each other).

Just before I left, I walked into the darkened bedroom where she was rocking her tiny daughter to sleep. When I bent down to hug her goodbye, she broke down and cried. We both knew it was probably the “baby blues,” a normal reaction in the first days or weeks after having a baby. Knowing that probably helped her some, but it certainly didn’t take away the feelings.

About 40 to 80 percent of new moms suffer from some degree of postpartum blues, said Dr. Hugh Donnell, a family practice doctor and obstetrician at Rogers Medical Center. The more severe symptoms of postpartum depression occur in 5 to 10 percent of women after delivery, Donnell said. More women aredonnell.jpg becoming educated about this common yet unsettling condition, allowing them to seek help when they recognize the symptoms. Knowing that it’s a specific medical condition also helps women release “new mom guilt,” which often makes depression more intense, Dr. Donnell said. (New mom guilt often rears its ugly head following thoughts like, “I just had a wonderful, fabulous baby. Why don’t I feel happier?”)

Although having a history of depression makes new mothers more susceptible to postpartum depression, it’s not the only factor that can trigger the onset of the condition. Dr. Donnell said postpartum depression is simply depression that’s exacerbated by too little sleep, hormonal factors, stress of taking care of a new baby (“It’s a good stress, but it’s still stress!” Dr. Donnell notes) and the physical pain from childbirth recovery. Mothers who didn’t experience postpartum depression after their first child was born may have to deal with it after a subsequent delivery.

“Each pregnancy is different,” he said. “At different times in life, the pressures might be greater.”

Dr. Donnell said some new moms often come into his office and tell him they’re just not feeling well. Though it’s not always what his patients want to hear, Dr. Donnell often encourages them to give the recovery process a little time. “Your body tends to correct itself,” he said.

To help the body along, he reminds new mothers to eat healthy foods, continue taking prenatal vitamins for an extra boost, exercise a little and try to get extra sleep. And yes, he knows all brand-new, frazzled mamas are laughing out loud right now at that one, but that brings up the next point: Ask for and receive help. Many mothers are notorious for pretending to be superwomen following childbirth and often refuse help offered by relatives and friends. Dr. Donnell urges moms to accept the help so they can get the rest their body needs. He also points out that moms have to stop being so hard on themselves.

“There are no perfect parents, but there are lots of good parents,” he says.

For mothers diagnosed with postpartum depression, Dr. Donnell said counseling is roughly as effective as medication, but sometimes a prescription is necessary. There are medications currently on the market that are both non-addictive and safe during breastfeeding. Dr. Donnell said taking medication for depression is a personal choice, but a physician can help a mother decide when that treatment is best for her body.

“That’s between each person and her physician,” he said. “It can be impressive how much difference the right medication can make.”

Dr. Donnell said he gets particularly concerned if depression is interfering with a new mother’s relationships – with the baby or others – or if the desire to stay in bed all day continues for a long time. Obviously, suicidal thinking should be dealt with immediately. Family members and friends should encourage new mothers to seek professional help for any signs of depression, especially if a mother appears dangerous to herself or her baby.

Dr. Donnell is a physician with Mercy Health System. To visit the Mercy website, click on the banner ad at the top of this page.