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Maternal Depression: What it Looks Like and When to Seek Help

Blog Maternal Depression: What it Looks Like and When to Seek Help

Dr. Nicole Scott, a gynecologist at IU Health, talks about maternal depression. What it is, what it looks like, and how to treat it.


Welcoming a new life into the world is a joyful but often overwhelming experience, a reality that can bring depressive episodes. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, as many as one in nine women experience depression before, during, and after pregnancy.

With May being named National Maternal Depression Awareness Month, it’s a good time to look a little more closely at this issue, and to recognize that it’s about more than just adjusting to the idea of being a parent; there are other components that make this a very real women’s health concern.

What does maternal depression look like?

Maternal depression can take many forms. In fact, a recent study of more than 8,200 women from 19 centers in seven countries found that women with the most severe maternal depression symptoms — suicidal thoughts, panic, uncontrollable crying — often had these concerns start during pregnancy. The same study also found that those women who experienced moderate depression often developed their symptoms postpartum but had suffered complications during pregnancy such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, or hypertension. And more generally, 10 to 20 percent of mothers experience depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or other symptoms at some point from pregnancy to a year after giving birth.

What are some of the symptoms?

Though maternal depression symptoms may vary from woman to woman, Nicole Scott, MD, a gynecologist at Indiana University Health, says there are some classic indicators, such as crying for no clear reason, and having trouble sleeping, eating or making decisions. “The inability to care for herself or her baby can also be early warning signs,” says Dr. Scott. “And, not being able to find joy with the baby or life.” Withdrawing from loved ones, fatigue, poor bonding with the baby, significant appetite changes, and anger may also factor into the mix.

Are there different types of maternal depression?

Depression is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. Some women may experience a few symptoms, some might feel them all. Timing is also variable in that symptoms may show up during pregnancy, delivery, or post partum. How long they last, however, may help you figure out if this is normal or something aberrant. Most women —as high as 80 percent — experience “baby blues” owing to the huge hormonal swings associated with birthing a child; these blues usually only last about two weeks and peak at about three to five days after giving birth. “Postpartum depression — which affects up to 15 percent of new mothers — lasts longer than baby blues (typically about two to three months) but is very common,” says Dr. Scott. “Women need to know they’re not alone.” Anything lasting more than a year may indicate a serious depressive disorder.

What heightens maternal depression risks?

Isolation is not good for new moms and a lack of support is one thing that may magnify maternal depression. “Traumatic birth, preterm birth, medical problems for mom or baby, and problems breastfeeding may also make things worse,” says Dr. Scott.

How best can maternal depression be treated?

Maternal depression is highly treatable, yet it’s estimated that up to 80 percent of women suffering symptoms are not receiving care. So, what can you do?

“Seek help from your gynecologist and if the depression lasts more than 12 weeks, a psychologist or psychiatrist may also be helpful,” says Dr. Scott, who suggests that Indiana University Health has great perinatal mood disorder resources including a support group for pregnant women and new moms to which participants can even bring their kids. “Don’t ever be ashamed to talk to your doctor and partner about it.”

-- By Kimberly Dawn Neumann

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