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Is it baby blues or postpartum depression? 3 ways to spot the difference

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If you or someone you know recently gave birth, you can expect to notice a wide range of emotions, including negative ones. Exhaustion, stress, anxiousness, sadness and loneliness are all common experiences for new moms (and dads!) in the first couple days and weeks after welcoming a new child into the world. 

But how can you tell when a new mom has the typical "baby blues" versus a more serious mental health condition known as postpartum depression (PPD)? While only a medical doctor can diagnose PPD, there are some telltale characteristics that all new mothers and their loved ones should be aware of.  

1. Postpartum depression lasts longer 

Crying spells, mood swings and related symptoms of the "baby blues" usually show up within the first couple days after delivery and can last for up to two weeks. And no wonder! Dealing with a new schedule, new roles and responsibilities, new demands on relationships, physical stresses from pregnancy and delivery and of course, a lack of sleep can be challenging to deal with, no matter how joyful of a time it is for new parents. Even so, the baby blues are considered short-lived and should get better as mom adjusts to her new life. 

If a woman develops PPD, however, she may struggle with intense emotions and related symptoms for much longer—several weeks or months. Research indicates that PPD may even last for years in some women. PPD also doesn't go away on its own; it is a serious mental health condition that requires professional treatment. 

2. Postpartum depression is more intense 

Intermittent crying spells, mood swings, irritability, loneliness, sadness and anxiousness—it's not unusual for women to experience these feelings soon after giving birth to their child. But according to the American Psychological Association (APA), 1 out of 7 women will develop PPD after having a baby. PPD is more intense and may include symptoms such as:

  • mood swings, including aggression, anger, agitation and irritability
  • crying and/or long periods of sadness
  • constant anxiety and/or panic attacks
  • loss of interest in people, activities and things you used to enjoy
  • change in eating habits (eating too much or too little)
  • sleeping too much or too little, or struggling to fall and/or stay asleep 
  • feeling guilty, worthless and/or overwhelmed
  • fear about being a bad mother or not doing a good job
  • fear of being left alone with the baby
  • disinterest in or difficulty with bonding with the baby (e.g., mothers may stop breastfeeding or cuddling)
  • problems concentrating, remembering things and/or making decisions
  • racing, intrusive and often frightening thoughts, including thoughts of self-harm or hurting the baby 

You should know that PPD is different from postpartum psychosis, which is a very rare mental health condition that can cause severe symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, obsessive thoughts, confusion and legitimate attempts at self-harm or harming the baby. Postpartum psychosis is a life-threatening condition for mom and baby and requires emergency medical treatment—call 911 immediately if you think you or someone you know is showing signs or symptoms.

3. Postpartum depression may come with certain risk factors

PPD can affect any new mom, but some women may be more likely to develop it depending on certain risk factors. These factors include:

  • a family history of depression or other mental health conditions
  • a personal history of depression or other mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder
  • a prior history of PPD following a previous pregnancy
  • recent stressful life experiences, such as illness, death of a loved one, job loss and/or pregnancy complications
  • having a baby born with special needs or health problems
  • having multiples, such as twins or triplets
  • limited support system 
  • financial problems
  • relationship problems with a spouse or romantic partner
  • unplanned or unwanted pregnancy

Did you recently welcome a new baby into your family?

Feeling intense emotions after becoming a new parent is normal—and it doesn't mean you're doing anything wrong! But if your "baby blues" don't go away after two weeks or make it difficult for you to care for yourself and your baby, or if you are having thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, find a doctor who can help. You don't have to do this alone. 

Lindsay Sleade, RN, is the program coordinator for SIU Medicine’s Nurse-Family Partnership. Through this program, first-time parents can receive the support of a personal nurse at no cost, starting in pregnancy. If you are interested in learning more or would like to see if you qualify for a personal nurse, call 217-545-0175.

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