When a New Baby Isn't a Bundle of Joy

From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 23, 2001 -- You've just had a new baby, and you're overwhelmed with joy, right? Not necessarily. For about 10% of women in the U.S., giving birth is followed by months of depression. New research suggests that women suffering from this condition, called postpartum depression, may have trouble bonding with their new infant.

Chun-Chong Loh, of Birmingham University in England, and colleagues looked at how well 41 infants and their mothers with postpartum depression interacted. They found in 13 pairs of moms and babies, interaction seemed to be severely impaired. Interaction problems were mild in another 14 pairs, and there were no problems in the remaining 14.

Women most likely to have trouble were those with infants who had physical problems, difficult temperaments, or low birth weights. Other risk factors for the women included concern about their unemployment and problems with their partners. The researchers presented their findings earlier this month at the Royal College of Psychiatry meeting in London.

According to Victoria Hendrick, MD, research has shown that the children of women who suffer from lasting depression are more likely to have emotional, intellectual, and behavioral problems. This new study, she says, helps explain those findings by demonstrating that women with postpartum depression have trouble bonding with their newborn.

"This is a very important study because it shows that postpartum depression can have an impact not only on the mother but also on the child," she tells WebMD. "That's why it's so important to screen for postpartum depression."

Hendrick is director of the Pregnancy and Postpartum Mood Disorders Program at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. She was not involved in this study.

"Women should be aware that postpartum depression is really common," says Hendrick. "One of the things that keeps women from seeking treatment is the shame they feel that they're depressed and irritable and not enjoying the experience of having a new baby. The myth is that this is a time of happiness in a woman's life," she says, adding that a lot of women who have just had a baby feel exhausted and unhappy. "A good 10-12% experience that, which translates to over 500,000 women a year in the U.S."


The good news about postpartum depression, she says, is that treatments are very effective. "Here at our program at UCLA, we have about a 96% response rate. So, the vast majority of women get better."

Treatments include antidepressants, psychotherapy, and/or marriage therapy, usually for six months to a year. Women who have suffered from depression repeatedly in the past may have to keep taking antidepressants for an extended period of time.

So, what symptoms can you watch out for to if you're concerned?

  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping excessively, even when the baby is awake
  • Appetite changes
  • Extreme concern and worry about the baby or a lack of interest or feelings for the baby
  • Feeling unable to love the baby or your family
  • Anger toward the baby, your partner, or other family members
  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Fear of harming your baby. These thoughts may be recurrent, and you may be afraid to be left alone in the house with your baby.
  • Irritability
  • Sadness or excessive crying
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • Feelings of doubt, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, or restlessness
  • Lack of energy or extreme fatigue
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or other usual activities
  • Mood swings
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Numbness or tingling in your arms or legs
  • Hyperventilating
  • Calling pediatrician constantly because of concerns over your baby, with an inability to be reassured
  • Thinking about death all the time, which may include thinking about or even planning suicide
  • Obsessive compulsive features, including intrusive, repetitive thoughts and anxiety
  • Exaggerated high and low moods

If you're experiencing even a few of the symptoms above, you should call your doctor, so that he/she can reassure you, or so that you can come up with a treatment plan together.