Postpartum Depression: Early Diagnosis and Treatment are Key


During the postpartum period, new moms may be emotionally sensitive or experience mood swings. This is known as the “baby blues” period, and for many new moms it will usually subside after about two weeks.

But at least one in nine new moms develop a more serious condition­­, postpartum depression, which can negatively impact the emotional health of mom and baby. It is critical for new mothers to be evaluated and treated as early as possible.

Hormones and sleep deprivation play a part in postpartum blues

Moms with postpartum depression, also called postnatal depression, may experience:

  • Tremendous sadness or feelings of defeat
  • High levels of anxiety and worry
  • Extreme agitation or an unsettled feeling
  • Indifference towards the baby, which can make bonding difficult
  • Thoughts of harming themselves or their babies (in severe cases)

While the exact cause of postpartum depression is unknown, it is likely that the surge of hormones during pregnancy and the abrupt hormonal dip following delivery may trigger the condition. Lack of sleep also plays a part. The time of highest vulnerability for psychological conditions is during the six months following the birth of the baby.

Postpartum depression typically responds well to treatment. Not only moms benefit from treatment, babies do as well: Studies show babies and children of depressed, anxious or detached moms are at a higher risk of developing psychological or relationship issues of their own.

Stigma of postnatal depression

The shame and stigma associated with feeling depressed or anxious with a newborn may prevent women from getting the help they need. Fewer than 50 percent of women who experience postpartum depression will receive a diagnosis. Screening women at prenatal visits may help identify those at risk before the baby is born. Warning signs for those at risk for postpartum depression may include:

  • Depression risk factors, such as a family or personal history of depression
  • Stressful or traumatic life events
  • Poor social or partner support
  • Low self-esteem

Treatment is effective for postpartum depression

When appropriately treated, patients can recover and move forward to be fully functioning, productive mothers. Treatment for postpartum depression usually includes antidepressant medications (many are safe to use while breastfeeding). Psychotherapy is often incorporated into the treatment plan to help new moms develop coping skills.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the first drug designed specifically for postpartum depression. Brexanolone is chemically identical to a hormone whose levels drop after childbirth. It is administered in a healthcare setting where the patient is continually monitored and gets delivered through an infusion into the vein over 60 hours.

To help you figure out your risk for postpartum depression, take our postpartum depression risk assessment. If you are concerned about postpartum depression, either during pregnancy or following delivery, contact your OB/GYN or request an obstetrics and gynecology appointment at UCLA Health.