More than 4 million babies are born in the United States each year. Doctors say the number one problem with new mothers following the birth of their child is postpartum depression. Unfortunately, many women try to keep this condition a secret and doing so could have devastating consequences.
New mothers are often disappointed and even ashamed when the joy they expected to feel after having a baby turns into sadness or fear or both.
One woman whom we will call Amanda described her experience.
"I felt scared, panicked, doomsday, like trapped,just overwhelmed, a feeling of kind of helplessness, you know, like everything is on you," she explained.
Expect a Bumpy Emotional Ride After Giving Birth
Dr. Theresa Whibley has been delivering babies for decades and says she tries to warn new mothers to expect a bumpy ride after giving birth.
"I think many women are not prepared for some of the emotional effects of having a baby," she said. "It's obviously a very happy time usually for most families, but you forget that there are great hormonal changes. There are great changes in family dynamics, certainly there are huge changes in sleep and it's really amazing to me that women do as well as they do in the post partum phase."
The truth is, it's normal to feel sad or scared after giving birth. It's called the baby blues, and 80 percent of women get them. But if these feelings last longer than two weeks, it's likely postpartum depression and should be treated professionally, for the sake of the mother and the baby.
Your Baby Is Also Affected for Years
"Children of depressed moms lag behind other children," said Dr. Christine Truman, a psychiatrist who specializes in postpartum depression.
Dr. Truman says if mothers don't get help for postpartum depression, it can cause problems for their children such as delayed language development, difficulty bonding with people, behavioral problems like increased crying, anger and difficulty regulating their emotions.
Dr. Truman explains these impairments could last for years.
"The interesting thing is that the degree of impairment in the children seems to be related to the duration of the mom's depression," she said. "So the longer a mother is depressed the more likely and the more serious the impairment would be in the child."
Postpartum Depression and Psychosis Symptoms
About one in five mothers suffers from postpartum depression. Symptoms include sadness, guilt or fear, withdrawing from people, sleeping too much or too little, having trouble with their memory, concentration or making decision.
Although postpartum depression is a very serious condition, there is something worse known as postpartum psychosis. This is a very rare type of disorder that affects about one in a thousand mothers. It is said to have been what Andrea Yates was suffering from when she drowned her five children in Texas in 2001.
Dr. Truman says women and their families should take immediate action is symptoms of postpartum psychosis appear.
"A mother experiences extreme agitation, extreme mood swings confusion about what's real, disorientation, disorganized thoughts or speak and often hallucinations and delusions. It's really an emergency situation," Truman said.
Family, Friends Must Be Vigilant of New Mother
Many new mothers don't realize they have postpartum problems, so it's often up to the people around them to recognize the warning signs and urge them to get help. Treatment usually involves talk therapy and anti-depressants that are safe for breastfeeding.
Amanda is doing both.
"Last month has been the happiest month I've had in quite a long time, just because I feel like I'm getting normal again," she said.
Removing The Stigma
Dr. Truman is interested is removing the stigma attached to postpartum depression so more people come forward to get the treatment they need.
"Postpartum depression -- it's a biological illness. It's a medical illness. It's not caused by a weak personality. It's not caused by a failure on the mother to do what she's supposed to do. It's a biological illness, so it's not something a mom has any control over," she said.
To illustrate that point, examine the change in hormones a woman experiences before, during and after pregnancy. The levels of progesterone and estrogen continue to rise steadily throughout the 40 weeks of gestation until reaching very high levels. Then within 24 hours of giving birth those levels go crashing down to pre-pregnancy levels.
Although hormones contribute to postpartum depression, so does the environment. For instance, women who live on military bases are at higher risk, because they're separated from their extended family and often their husband. In fact, women in western cultures like the U.S. have higher rates of postpartum depression, because they are more likely to raise their children virtually alone, compared with other cultures where women share all the responsibilities of child birth and raising children with family and community. Therefore, a good support system is invaluable, and women can go a long way toward preventing postpartum depression by making connections to people in church, in their families or in their neighborhood. Building relationships and asking for help is good for mom and baby.
Reaching Out to Expectant or New Mothers
Likewise, people who reach out to expectant or new mothers can provide a meaningful service to them. Deanna Otto brings food to new moms who don't have family nearby. She often does housework or watches the baby while mom gets the sleep she craves. Otto also spends time talking to new mothers and pays attention to how they are doing emotionally. This type of service is something she recommends to all Christians.
"It's just the right thing to do," she said. "I feel better as a person helping out somebody else. They really appreciate it -- just those hours -- it gives them a little reprieve so that they can feel like they can do it all themselves again."
So while motherhood is a blessing, it's not always easy. Paying attention to how a new mother is feeling can avoid heartache for her and her baby.
*Originally published January 13, 2010.