Beyond baby blues: detecting perinatal mood disorders early

October 22, 2015 | by Fatima Ali, M.D.

If you think postpartum blues, often called “baby blues,” could never happen to you, think again. Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) affect as many as 80 percent of women during pregnancy and after giving birth, thanks to hormonal changes and sleep deprivation, among other factors.

While postpartum blues usually resolves within a week or two after delivery, sometimes symptoms continue and worsen. New research suggests perinatal depression (also called postpartum depression or PPD) affects as many as 1 in 7 women, and about 1 in 10 fathers.

How do you know when you’ve moved beyond baby blues? Some red flags for perinatal depression are not being able to nap while your baby is sleeping or worrying obsessively about your baby’s health. Here are some other symptoms to be aware of:

  • Sadness and irritability
  • Excessive worry, panic attacks
  • Feeling hopeless, helpless or inadequate
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • Problems with sleeping and eating
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Lack of interest in normal activities

When PMAD symptoms last for more than two weeks or make it difficult to function, it’s time to get help. In very rare cases (1-2 percent), mothers may experience agitation, mood swings, or a loss of touch with reality marked by delusions, hallucinations and even suicidal or infanticidal thoughts or actions. Postpartum psychosis is a medical emergency and treatment is urgent.

Motherhood is challenging for everyone. It can be confusing to struggle with feelings that contradict the feelings of joy often expected of new mothers. Many women are acutely aware that they are not feeling like themselves and that something is wrong. Unfortunately, most suffer in silence out of fear, guilt or shame.

It’s important to recognize that PMADs have a very real biological basis — and are also highly treatable, with early identification leading to faster and more effective treatment. Here are some ways to detect PMADs early so you can feel better:

  • Find a trusted doctor – If you haven’t already, team up with a doctor who you can trust, who will encourage you to be open about your feelings and get you the right kind of help if you need it.
  • Be honest about symptoms – Many doctors recommend that all expectant and new mothers be screened for PMADs. Be honest when answering screening questions, it’s what’s best for you and your baby!
  • Get as much rest as possible - This can seem impossible with a newborn, but you’ll be a better mom if you give yourself a break and give up some of your responsibilities for now.
  • Build a support system - Plan ahead and enlist help from others in the weeks after returning home from the hospital. You’ll need it.
  • Talk about your feelings - Talking about your feelings is one of the best things you can do for yourself. In addition to family and friends, a professional counselor can be a great resource.

If you’re dealing with a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder, there is no shame in getting the help you need to feel better. No one can be a perfect mom, but we can do our best to be a healthy one.

Learn more about PMADs.

Get help for postpartum depression and anxiety. Call the Mom’s Line at 630-527-7294, or join the Nurturing Mom support group.

Explore behavioral health resources, or call 630-305-5027 for a free behavioral health assessment.

Fatima Ali, MD is a psychiatrist at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

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