While many women experience a mild case of “the blues,” some women suffer a more debilitating condition known as postpartum depression. These women develop prolonged feelings of sadness, anxiety, insomnia, extreme fatigue, and possibly even thoughts of suicide or of causing harm to the infant.
The most widely accepted theory relates postpartum depression to the drastic hormonal changes that accompany birth. In addition, the constant demands of a newborn can leave a woman completely fatigued and overwhelmed. A woman who has high expectations and tries to accomplish too much may set herself up for depression. The inability to be the “perfect parent” may affect her self-esteem and increase her feelings of failure. If the birth did not go according to her plans, this may add to her feelings of failure. Heredity or previous history may also play a role. A history of mental illness or a difficult postpartum adjustment either by the woman or by another family member may increase her risk. A woman who abruptly stops breastfeeding may experience a drop in hormone levels, which can increase feelings of depression. Breastfeeding releases hormones that help new mothers feel calm and relaxed. It has also been shown to prevent the release of stress hormones in new mothers.
Identifying postpartum depression is the first step. Understanding and compassion from family members, adequate rest, good nutrition, and assistance with daily activities is a must. Counseling and support groups may also benefit some women. Occasionally, drug therapy with antidepressants can be used. Some physicians have found that injections of progesterone after delivery may reduce the symptoms in women whose depression is caused by severe hormone withdrawal. Others have used vitamin B6 with some success. A British study has reported improvement in postpartum depression with the use of estrogen patch.