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Women's experiences of mental illness and their symptoms are diverse, especially through the reproductive years but postpartum depression has a distinctly different feel to it from the ‘Baby Blues’ which. About 80% of women experience baby blues. There is more information on the difference between Baby Blues and Postpartum Depression in the Baby Blues and Postpartum Depression Factsheet.

The BC Reproductive Mental Health Program provides services for women with complex and often overlapping issues related to their mental health during the postpartum period. It is common, for example, for women suffering with depression to also feel very anxious and both kinds of symptoms may require treatment.

Major Depression

is a clinical condition occurring twice as often in women as in men. In pregnancy and the postpartum period. It is thought that changing hormone levels may affect neurotransmitter changes in the brain that result in major depression in women who are vulnerable to developing depression.

  • Between 10% and 16% of women experience major depression in the postpartum period.

What are the risk factors for Major Depression?

Women are at greater risk of experiencing major depression in the postpartum period if they have:

  • a previous history of major depression, including depression during the pregnancy
  • a family history of major depression in a close relative or relatives
  • relationship problems
  • recent stressful life events, for example bereavement or loss of employment

What are the signs and symptoms of a Major Depression?

Depression affects a woman’s mood, behaviour, thoughts and physical well being. It may affect individual women differently – some women might start to feel depressed within the first few days after the baby is born. Others might not feel depressed until some time later. Women may experience some of the following:

  • low mood or sadness, crying spells for no apparent reasons
  • sleeping a lot more or a lot less than usual
  • eating a lot more or a lot less than usual
  • feelings of guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness or being overwhelmed
  • withdrawing from family, friends or contact with others
  • being restless, having little energy, finding it hard to concentrate or make decisions
  • physical symptoms such as headaches or upset stomach
  • feelings of being a bad mother.
  • frightening or scary thoughts of harming herself or the baby

These symptoms are present every day for at least two weeks, are very upsetting to the woman and significantly interfere with her daily life and ability to care for her baby.

Why should women with Major Depression following the birth seek treatment?

Untreated depression may interfere with a woman’s ability to enjoy being a mother and hinder early bonding with her baby. If illness persists in the postpartum period, this impaired bonding may become chronic. Untreated depression may have long-term consequences for the child who may develop cognitive, mood, or behaviour problems when older.

Symptoms of depression may interfere with the woman’s ability to work or carry out daily activities such as self-care. Medical care both for herself and the baby may also be neglected. In desperation, some women may turn to alcohol and drugs, which compromise the mother's health and her relationship with the new baby. In severe cases, women may contemplate self-harm or even suicide to cope with their depressive symptoms.

There is treatment and help available.  Women should talk to their healthcare provider, explaining all their symptoms, even if they seem contradictory and make decisions about next steps together.

There is more information in the Treatment Options section, in the Perinatal Depression Treatment Options Fact Sheet and in the guide Coping with Depression During Pregnancy and After the Birth.