Postpartum Depression

More Than 'Baby Blues'

Medically Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD
5 min read

Jan. 1, 2001 -- When David Resnick's wife, Susan, experienced severe postpartum depression after the birth of their second child, the couple's world fell apart. "I went into survival mode," David Resnick says. "I had a wife who was clearly ill, a 4-month-old baby, and a 3-year-old daughter."

To make matters worse, other family crises also loomed. "At the time, my mother was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer, my wife's mom had a bad back, and my sister-in-law who lives down the street just had twins," says David. "There weren't a lot of family members to help us."

An estimated one in 10 new moms experience postpartum depression, or PPD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Except for the timing of the illness and the vivid, disturbing thoughts of hurting or killing the baby that some women experience, the symptoms of PPD otherwise mirror those of major depression. Symptoms can include sleep disturbances, fatigue, sadness, loss of interest, appetite changes, weight loss or gain, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, irritability, agitation, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidal thoughts.

As David Resnick soon discovered, information and support for the male partners of women with PPD are slim. A study published in the July/August 1999 issue of The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing indicated that the partners of women suffering from PPD often feel overwhelming frustration, fear, anger, resentment, confusion, and isolation. "As a man, it's really hard to deal with all of those emotions," David says.

Getting a diagnosis also can be a problem. Susan Resnick first went to her primary care physician for help, but he missed the diagnosis. "He said I should take a vacation," Susan Resnick says. But the couple knew more was going on than a vacation could cure.

PPD often is confused with the so-called "baby blues," characterized by weepiness, anxiety, irritability, and fatigue that typically end within 10 days of delivery. But unlike the baby blues, PPD can emerge anytime -- even months -- after the delivery and last a year or more if not treated. While doctors speculate that PPD is related to complex physiological changes occurring in the mother's body after her baby's delivery, the exact cause remains unknown.

The Resnicks' experience is not unique, says Sandra Thomas, PhD, director of the doctoral program in nursing at the University of Tennessee, and the researcher whose study was published in the nursing journal. Thomas noted similar stumbling blocks for the eight PPD-affected couples included in her study. They were told by doctors, "Oh, all new moms are tearful. Don't worry about it," she says. Thomas believes the study underscores the need for more PPD preparedness among health professionals.

Wendy Davis, PhD, a psychotherapist and the Oregon and Idaho state coordinator for Postpartum Support International, agrees. Many healthcare professionals lack sufficient training, she says. Davis says PPD was not covered in her own doctoral program 12 years ago. Like many, she had a personal PPD crash course when it flared up after the birth of her first child.

"One of the biggest problems is that these men are so isolated," Thomas tells WebMD. "It was really disturbing to think of how alone these guys were, and how much they struggled and suffered."

"My mother was very ill with cancer at the time," David Resnick says. "I looked at how my father supported my mother, and that became a role model." He says he understood that PPD was an illness, like cancer, and not his wife's fault. "I tried to be compassionate," he says.

David Resnick says there was only so much he could do to aid his wife psychologically, so he focused on tangible things -- doing the dishes, dressing the children. Some nights he'd hold her, stroke her hair, and assure her that everything would be all right. Other nights he'd sleep on the pullout sofa next to infant son Max's portable crib, soothing the baby's cries, trying to maintain quiet so his wife could sleep. "Everyone says my husband was a saint," Susan Resnick says.

The one place David Resnick did get support was at the small law firm where he then worked. When he needed to cut back on his hours to help his family, fellow attorneys and his secretary picked up the slack. "Now I work for a much larger law firm, and I think it would be more difficult here," he says.

It is important to recognize that PPD likely affects all members of the family. Left untreated, it can undermine a woman's confidence in her ability to be a good mom. PPD also can tear apart a couple's relationship, especially when communication breaks down and hope runs out. And it can have long-lasting effects on the baby as well. Studies suggest that babies in the care of depressive moms tend to exhibit social, emotional, and cognitive problems later in life.

Eventually, Susan Resnick found a nurse psychotherapist who recognized her PPD and worked with her to treat it. With a combination of talk therapy and antidepressants, she finally emerged from the darkness where she had spent nearly a year. And David Resnick says counseling helped him resume a balanced life.

It's been four years since baby Max was born, and the days when PPD ruled the Resnicks' lives are over. Though it was one of the most challenging times in their marriage, both Susan and David Resnick say some good came of it. In fact, Susan Resnick wrote a memoir about her trying experience, titled Sleepless Days, which she hopes will help other PPD sufferers realize they are not alone.

Marie Stone is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore., who writes about consumer health.