What are the baby blues?
The baby blues refer to the period of time after giving birth where a mother may feel sad, anxious, and just not herself. They usually begin within a few days of giving birth and gradually resolve within 1 to 2 weeks. The baby blues are a common experience for women. In fact, around 50 to 80% of new mothers experience them.
Signs of the baby blues include:
- Feeling sad and tearful
- Feeling more worried than usual
- Difficulty sleeping
- Poor appetite
- Lack of desire to keep up with hygiene
- Lack of interest in activities or hobbies that were previously enjoyed
It’s common for women with the baby blues to cry without knowing why they are feeling sad. It can be very confusing for women to feel like they can’t control their own emotions.
In many cases the baby blues go away on their own without treatment. If you’re feeling down and anxious and have given birth within the past 2 weeks, you may start to feel better soon. However, there are some instances where the baby blues may lead to other problems.
What causes the baby blues?
The baby blues are believed to be caused by a combination of hormonal and lifestyle changes that occur after giving birth. During the postpartum period, there is a drop in estrogen and progesterone levels and an increase in prolactin. At the same time, having a newborn involves a significant shift in routine, sleeping patterns, and overall sense of responsibility. It’s common for new parents to be overwhelmed with emotions about their delivery, new baby, and future. Professionals believe that the baby blues are caused by a combination of these big changes that occur during the postpartum period.
Can the baby blues lead to postpartum depression?
For some women, the baby blues may lead to a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD), like postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety. Around 13 to 20% of mothers develop postpartum depression within the first year. Postpartum depression is one type of PMAD. It involves a depressed mood that lasts for more than 2 weeks and begins at any point within the first year of giving birth. It’s accompanied by other symptoms like:
- A loss of interest in activities and hobbies that were once pleasurable
- An increase or decrease in weight or appetite (not related to recent pregnancy)
- Changes in sleeping patterns (either sleeping too much or too little)
- Low energy
- Feeling worthless or guilty without necessarily having a reason to
- Difficulty thinking clearly, concentrating, or making decisions
- Appearing either sluggish or agitated to other people
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Anyone who has a new baby, even fathers and adopted parents, may develop postpartum depression. However, certain risks factors may increase the chances of developing postpartum depression, including:
- Previous history of anxiety or depression
- Experiencing a risky pregnancy and/or delivery
- Having a delivery that differed from what was expected (such as having an emergency cesarean section)
- Experiencing postpartum complications
- Younger age of the mother
- Lack of social support from family, friends, and one’s partner
- Certain vitamin deficiencies, including zinc, selenium, and B vitamins
- Sleeping problems
Postpartum depression can be very distressing for parents. We often imagine that having a new baby will bring great joy, not sadness and irritability. Fortunately, postpartum depression is treatable and in some cases even preventable.
Coping with the baby blues
Most women that experience the baby blues begin to feel better within a few weeks of giving birth. During that time, there are certain steps you can take to help yourself cope more effectively:
Finding time to sleep with a newborn is not an easy task, but getting as much sleep as possible during this time will help you recover from the baby blues. If possible, have your partner take over one night feeding so that you can get a longer stretch of sleep. You can also try to rest when the baby does and give yourself permission to put household chores on the back burner for now.
Maintaining a nutritious diet can also help you feel better during this time period. Now is not the time to crash diet, as your body is still recovering from childbirth. If you’re breastfeeding, your body may need around 2,300 to 2,500 calories per day. Aim for a diet filled with fruits, vegetables, protein, and whole grains and limit your consumption of caffeine and alcohol.
Don’t feel pressured to maintain a perfect household right now. Try to give yourself permission to not feel guilty if the laundry and dishes pile up. When you have the option, ask for assistance around the house or accept help when it’s offered.
Communicate with your support system
Many women hide their true feelings after giving birth because they worry how others will perceive them. Keeping your feelings to yourself can cause you to feel isolated, alone, and ashamed. When a loved one asks how you’re doing, try sharing your true feelings. By openly communicating, you may learn that you’re not the only one that has felt this way. Your loved ones may also be more willing to step in to help if they know the truth.
Do an activity that helps you feel “normal”
Having a new baby turns your life upside down overnight. You might wonder if you will ever feel like yourself again. The answer is yes, at some point you will ease into this new role, but the beginning is hard. To make things a little easier, try to do an activity that helps you feel relaxed, whether it be taking a walk, a hot bath, or meditating for a few minutes. This may be something that has helped you in the past or a new activity that you’re willing to try. If you have loved ones available, ask them to help with childcare so you can find time to take care of yourself.
Remember that your feelings are normal
Mothers who experience the baby blues have a tendency to feel ashamed or embarrassed about how they’re feeling. It helps to remember that these feelings are common and most likely will go away within a few weeks. So take a deep breath and remind yourself that you will not feel this way forever.
The baby blues is a tough time. Taking steps to care for yourself during this time can ease some of the burden and help you recover. While many women recover rather quickly, a portion of women may have a harder time. Fortunately there are different options available for you if you continue to suffer beyond the baby blues.
When should I get help for the baby blues?
The baby blues alone usually resolve with 2 weeks. If you make extra efforts to care for yourself, connect with your support system, and understand that these feelings are normal, you may get better on your own. However, if you suspect that the baby blues are turning into a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD), like postpartum depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or postpartum psychosis, then you should consider seeking professional help.
How can you tell if it’s more than the baby blues? If you’re experiencing symptoms like sadness, irritability, and anxiety on a regular basis for more than 2 weeks, then you might have another postpartum condition. With the baby blues you may feel distressed and uncomfortable, but in general you can still function. The baby blues does not interfere with your ability to care for your baby or yourself. The baby blues also does not involve suicidal ideation. If your symptoms are severe enough to include suicidal thoughts or urges to hurt yourself or your baby or are interfering with your ability to function, then you may have a PMAD.
Treatment for a PMAD may include therapy, medication, support groups, or a combination of these options.
Therapy is an effective treatment for PMADs. It involves sitting and speaking with a therapist, who will listen, provide support, and offer alternative ways of thinking about a problem and tools to help you cope.
There are many different “types” or approaches to therapy available. Some of these have been studied on women dealing with PMADs, while others have been studied on people experiencing depression and anxiety unrelated to having a baby.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy are two types of therapy that are shown to be effective for treating postpartum depression. CBT focuses on helping you identify and change your irrational and negative thoughts that are contributing to your depression. Interpersonal therapy focuses on helping you improve your current relationships with other people by teaching communication and conflict resolution skills.
Some women who develop a PMAD may benefit from medication, especially if the symptoms are severe or don’t go away after trying other options, like therapy. If you’re interested in medication, you can speak with your primary care physician, OBGYN, or psychiatrist about your options. They will help you weigh the risks and benefits and talk to you about the safety of taking medication while breastfeeding.
Postpartum support groups are a way for new parents to connect with one another on a regular basis. They usually involve a group facilitator, who may be a mental health professional or another parent who has recovered from a PMAD, and a number of group members who all share a particular struggle. These groups are held both in-person and online.
Support groups are beneficial for a number of reasons. They can help you feel less alone, more understood, and less shame for suffering from a PMAD. Support groups can introduce you to new ways of coping with what you’re feeling, either through being taught new skills or receiving advice from other group members. They can also help you feel more supported by developing connections with other parents.
If you’re interested in finding a local in-person postpartum support group, you can conduct an online search for support groups in your area or search Postpartum Support International’s (PSI) online directory, which includes a listing of local support groups. You can also consider asking your OBGYN, pediatrician, psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist if they can provide you with a referral.
For access to online postpartum support groups, see PSI’s online meetings. They offer support for new parents, NICU parents, military members, and parents who have suffered a loss.