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Up to one year following the birth of a child is called the postpartum period.  The perinatal period, a phrase also used, refers to the whole of pregnancy and childbirth, up to the end of the baby’s first year. 

Emotional disorders during the postpartum period can occur any time from labour up to one year following the birth of the baby.  They can be helped by a range of possible treatment options which may not always include medications.  A discussion between the woman and her healthcare provider can decide the most appropriate treatment for her.

Causes and Triggers

There is no one cause of mental health challenges or disorders. In the postpartum period, there is a significant drop in levels of hormones which can trigger changes in women who are vulnerable to developing mood symptoms.  Sleep deprivation is another common trigger. A woman may be vulnerable because of a personal or family history of mental health challenges or disorders.

In addition, the experience of mothering is a major change of role and responsibility in a woman’s life, often accompanied by changes in personal, social, and economic circumstances. Most women (and their partners) have some difficulties coping during this time of adjustment and find support from family, friends, healthcare providers, neighbourhood groups and family doctors invaluable.  However, some women encountering emotional difficulties need more support and should not hesitate to talk to their healthcare provider if they are concerned.

What mental health disorders might occur after the baby is born?

Postpartum Blues or Baby Blues are experienced by up to 80% of women. Temporary emotional distress within the first three to five days after the birth of the baby is very common and is not referred to as a disorder.  It usually passes within a week or two.  Women can feel restless, irritable, tearful, discouraged, sad and helpless. 

Major Depressive Disorder is the most common mood disorder during the postpartum period.  Women feel constantly low or sad with changes in sleep or eating habits not due to caring for a new baby.  They may also experience feelings of guilt, worthlessness or being overwhelmed. If the symptoms last for more than two weeks, they may be suffering from a Major Depressive Disorder.  Rather than seek support, women may withdraw socially and emotionally from family and friends and may need encouragement to seek help. 

Anxiety Disorders may also occur in vulnerable women.  Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may occur alone or in combination with a depressive disorder. 

 The postpartum period is a vulnerable time for new onset or a relapse for women previously diagnosed with Bipolar disorder or a Psychotic disorder.  Planning your care with your healthcare provider during this time will be very important to ensure you get the support you need.  Postpartum psychosis is a rare but serious mental health disorder which may occur very suddenly either shortly after birth or within 2 – 4 weeks following the birth and requires immediate treatment.

Getting treatment as soon as possible

It is important to seek treatment as soon as possible so that symptoms do not continue or worsen.  Untreated mental illness can have long term consequences not only for the mother, but also her relationship with her baby and also the baby's development. 

Women may be concerned about breastfeeding if they need to take medications.  This will be an important part of the discussion between the woman and her healthcare provider so that if they are needed, the safest appropriate medications are chosen for a breastfeeding woman.

Are you concerned about your mental health?

Talk to a healthcare provider about how you are feeling.  There are many different kinds of treatments that can help, not always involving medications. With the right kind of support, women can overcome their mental heath challenges and begin to enjoy their babies.