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Understanding Perinatal Depression: Risk Factors, Symptoms, and Treatment

Updated: Mar 20

Caring for the mother is akin to caring for the child.

Front view mother with baby at home
image by freepik

What is Perinatal Depression?

Are you struggling to adjust to the sudden changes in your body and your identity? Are you feeling empty when you look at your baby, wondering where that maternal bond that everyone talks about went? Is it a struggle to care for the baby's needs, let alone your own? Is all this made worse by crippling guilt and shame for not enjoying what's supposedly "the happiest time of your life?"

Becoming a parent can elicit emotions like joy and excitement, and also emotions like sadness and anxiety. Most birthing parents experience the baby blues. Sometimes, parents (birthing or not) may experience more severe and prolonged depression in the aftermath of bringing home a new child. Perinatal depression is not a character flaw or a weakness.

What are symptoms of Perinatal Depression?

This table might help you differentiate "baby blues" from perinatal depression.

Baby Blues
Perinatal Depression

Affects most parents.

Affects an estimated 15% of parents.

Symptoms typically start 2-35 days after delivery. May persist for up to 2 weeks.

Symptoms can develop during pregnancy or after childbirth. Most episodes begin 4-8 weeks after delivery.

Symptoms may include:

  • Mood swings

  • Anxiety

  • Sadness

  • Irritability

  • Feeling overwhelmed

  • Crying

  • Reduced concentration

  • Appetite problems

  • Trouble sleeping

A more severe presentation of the Baby Blues, and may also include:

  • Difficulty bonding with the baby

  • Difficulty carrying out daily tasks, like caring for self and others

  • Withdrawing from family or friends

  • Insomnia or Hypersomnia

  • Fear that you're not a good parent

  • Hopelessness

  • Feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt, or inadequacy

  • Severe anxiety or panic attacks

  • Thoughts of harming yourself or your baby

  • Recurring thoughts of death or suicide

Risk factors for Perinatal Depression

Perinatal depression can strike regardless of how "easy" or healthy your pregnancy or birthing experience is. While any of us may be struck by a debilitating depressive episode, there are certain factors that can increase your risk of slipping into perinatal depression. These risk factors include nature (a.k.a. biological) and nurture (a.k.a. environmental).

Examples of biological risk factors include a family history of depression or a prior personal history of depression. Examples of environmental risk factors include the coincidental perfect storm of stressors in work and/or personal life, low level of support from friends and/or family (particularly those who are proximal in physical distance), and a low level of access to resources like medical support or other forms of hands-on help. Young mothers (those in their teens) and mothers to multiples (twins or triplets, for example) are also at an increased risk of experiencing perinatal depression. But remember, just because you fit some of these descriptions does not automatically mean that you will experience perinatal depression. You are just at a higher risk and would benefit from having a higher level of support around you at such a vulnerable and difficult time in your life.

Recognizing Perinatal Depression in the non-birthing parent

Fathers and non-biological parents may experience perinatal depression, too. Perinatal depression in fathers can have the same negative effect on partner relationships and child development as perinatal depression in mothers can. Both parents can exhibit similar symptoms and therefore may benefit from similar treatments and supports.

How to support a friend with Perinatal Depression

Your friend or family member may not admit or even realized that they are depressed. If you suspect that they are developing perinatal depression, be compassionate rather than dismissive, offer a helping hand with childcare or household chores without adding to the guilt that they may already be experiencing, and gently encourage them to seek medical attention. Discomfort is inevitable, but suffering does not have to be.

Treatment for Perinatal Depression

Left untreated, perinatal depression can impede parent-child bonding, increase the risk of depression in the other parent, and increase the child's risk of developing emotional or behavioral problems down the line. Timely treatment can help you manage your symptoms and help you bond with your baby.

Don't hesitate to seek treatment for perinatal depression. Treatment can help you manage and overcome your perinatal depression symptoms. Your healthcare team can help you decide which one or combination of treatment options would best meet your needs between talk therapy, support groups, and medications. Your healthcare team can also help your family understand the best ways to support you during this vulnerable and important stage in your life.


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