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After Baby is Born: Postpartum Depression and Relationships

Between 10% and 20% of new mothers experience postpartum depression.
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WebMD Feature

When Tina Merritt gave birth to her son Graham six years ago, she expected what all new mothers expect: a joyous experience getting to know her baby. Instead, she found that she was terrified of her own child.

“I came home and I cried for hours straight. I was afraid that somebody would leave me alone with this baby that I had no clue how to take care of,” she recalls.

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Depression and Divorce

The 20-something couple, married just a few years, was eagerly looking forward to the birth of their first baby. Labor and delivery went fine, and the baby was born healthy. But problems began when the new mom, overwhelmed by motherhood, suffered depression. "The husband had to take care of everything," recalls Joan R. Sherman, MFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Lancaster, Pa., who saw the couple in counseling. When he was at work, he worried that his wife was so depressed she...

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Stricken with the fear that she would be an incompetent mother, Merritt went back to work when Graham was 6 weeks old, ceding most of the baby’s care to her husband and the grandparents.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to take care of him -- I just thought they were better at it,” she says. “I felt like I couldn’t do it right. My husband knew something was wrong, and he picked up the pieces. He just thought, OK, I need to step up to the plate and be a responsible husband.”

Merritt, who now lives in southern California, wouldn’t learn the truth until her son was more than 2 years old: she was suffering from postpartum depression (PPD). Between 10% and 20% of women who have recently given birth experience PPD, but like Merritt, more than half of them go undiagnosed.

Recognizing Postpartum Depression

Postpartum depression is very different from the “baby blues,” a heightened emotional state that can hit 80% or more of new moms in the first days after the baby is born. Baby blues usually ebbs within a couple of weeks.

True postpartum depression is actually part of a constellation of conditions that experts call “perinatal mood disorders.” These mood disorders involve more than just feeling depressed, and they can occur during pregnancy as well as afterward.

How can you tell if you have a perinatal mood disorder? Here are six signs:

  • Eating and sleeping disturbances: You haven’t eaten in two days because you’re just not hungry, or you can’t stop eating. You sleep all the time, or you can’t sleep even when you have the chance.
  • Anxiety: Your mind races with fears and worries and you just can’t shut it off.
  • Feelings of guilt and shame: You have the sense that you’re “not doing this right,” that you’re a bad mother.Anger and irritability.
  • Uncontrollable thoughts of harm coming to the baby.
  • Just not feeling “like yourself.”

These symptoms usually appear within the first three months after the baby is born, and peak around the four-month mark. But, as with Tina Merritt, they can go on for years if undiagnosed and untreated.

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