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Having a baby is almost always stressful, but it can sometimes be worse than that, and postpartum depression doesn’t just affect mothers.

Hosted by: Brit Garner
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[INTRO ♪].

People don’t really talk about postpartum depression. After all, you've just had a baby!

It’s chubby, and it smells nice! You should be so happy! But more often than not, new parents aren’t.

A period of sadness after giving birth is so common that we have a colloquial name for it: the baby blues. 70 to 80% of new parents get it after giving birth, but approximately 1 in 7 experience a sadness that’s more severe and lingering: postpartum depression. It’s a real disorder that happens to a lot of people, and it’s totally treatable. But here’s something that might throw you for a loop: It’s even pretty common for the parent who didn’t give birth.

So let’s talk about it. First, though, we should mention that this research is mostly focused on straight, cisgender couples having a baby biologically. Obviously, families come in all shapes and sizes, but the science hasn’t really caught up yet for same-sex couples, transgender parents, and people who adopt.

So there’s not much we can say about postpartum depression in those groups. Chop chop, science! But with that important caveat, postpartum depression as we understand it today is a mood disorder that occurs after childbirth.

It causes sadness, exhaustion, and anxiety that interferes with day-to-day life. For women having a child, it usually starts shortly after birth and can last weeks or months. It can affect any new mother — it doesn’t matter if the pregnancy was hard or easy.

And for half of the women diagnosed with it, it’s their first-ever depressive episode. Postpartum depression, also known as PPD, can look really different in different people, which can make it tricky to diagnose and understand. Symptoms for women often include mood swings, frequent crying, trouble bonding with the baby, tiredness, fear that they won’t be a good mother, and a sense of worthlessness or shame.

The symptoms also tend to include a lot more restlessness and impaired decision-making than other kinds of depression. Much less attention has been given to PPD in men, which means it’s much harder to tell how many new fathers experience it. Estimates range from 4% to 25%.

If nothing else, we do know that, for them, PPD sets in a little longer after the baby is born. Still, because men tend to present as more anxious than women do when they’re depressed, some experts think we might not have the right tools to evaluate whether men have PPD. There’s also still a lot of debate about what causes this kind of depression.

There are a couple of hypotheses, and one is that it has to do with hormones, which makes perfect sense to anyone who has ever had PMS. In women, estrogen, progesterone, prolactin, and cortisol all drop dramatically after childbirth. And men experience fluctuating levels of similar hormones, along with testosterone and vasopressin, during and immediately after their female partner’s pregnancy.

But studies of both humans and non-human animals haven’t been able to draw a solid link between specific hormones and the symptoms of PPD. Another idea is that this condition has to do with all the intense life change that’s happening when you have a baby. Transitioning to parenthood is hard.

There’s the sleep deprivation. The need to develop a new sense of identity. The sleep deprivation.

The change in your day-to-day routine. The gap between the support you thought you were going to get from your friends and family and what you’re actually getting. Oh, and did I mention the sleep deprivation?

Ultimately, most psychologists agree that PPD is caused by a mix of biological and social factors, a wild hormonal cocktail dumped on top of one of the most stressful periods someone can experience. And with that in mind, there are some risk factors that can predict how likely you are to get postpartum depression. They include a previous history of depression, a poor marital relationship or a lack of social support, and stressful life events.

In men, the strongest predictor is whether their female partner has PPD, with 25-50% of new fathers experiencing this kind of depression if their female partner also has it. But here’s the thing… even if we don’t know exactly what causes PPD, we do know that it’s pretty bad news for the kid. There’s a ton of research showing that parental depression can affect children’s development.

The list just goes on and on, from delayed cognitive development and motor function to difficult temperament to attentional difficulties. And having two depressed parents is even more of a risk factor for these problems than one. The good news is that PPD can be treated with therapy.

Several studies have found that women who received interpersonal therapy recovered from their depressive episode significantly better than those in a waiting list condition. And cognitive behavioral therapy, which works with patients to challenge problematic thoughts and change destructive patterns of behavior, has also been shown to work. Medications can help, too, but breastfeeding women do need to be careful about which ones they take.

Really, a bigger problem is that people don’t seek out help. Over the years, studies have found that many women believed their PPD was a normal reaction to new motherhood or were ashamed of it. Some were even afraid that being labeled as “mentally ill” would make others think they couldn’t be trusted to be good moms.

Which is not okay. We have got to destigmatize this stuff, so that people can get the help they need without fear or shame. To that end, many experts have advocated for making PPD screening and treatment a normal part of prenatal care.

But in the meantime? We’ve just got to keep talking about it. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych, especially to our patrons on Patreon!

Our team couldn’t make episodes like this without you. If you’d like to help support free psychology education on the Internet, you can go to patreon.com/scishow. [OUTRO ♪].