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Postpartum depression, Baby blues, or just sleep deprivation. What’s the difference and how to tell?

exhausted mother and baby in crib

Every new mom plans to be the best mom. During pregnancy, our expectations, dreams, and hopes for a life with our baby build up with each passing week. But many moms, especially first-timers, find that when the reality of a newborn sets in, this idyllic plan does not come true. So, at any time during the first few weeks, a certain number of women will be asking themselves: “Why do I cry so much if I’m happy with my baby?”. The good news is that this is normal and that it’s also manageable once you understand what’s going on.

So, what is going on?

The first post-pregnancy weeks involve multiple changes on many levels. Aside from the most obvious and anticipated actions of labor, delivery, and breastfeeding, a new mom’s life changes on a very fundamental level: she shifts from being in control of her life to experimenting a perceived loss of control as she responds to her baby’s every need. This shift in itself is pretty demanding, especially for first-time moms. 

To add even more complexity to the matter, massive hormonal changes come into play during the post-pregnancy period. These hormonal changes, aimed at your recovery and your baby’s development, also have a big effect on your brain and emotions. These symptoms are commonly known as “Baby blues”. While Baby blues are experienced to some extent by most women (up to 80% according to the World Health Organization), it’s a condition with mild symptoms that goes away on its own within two or three weeks.

Postpartum depression, on the other hand, is an extreme mood disorder that affects some women after childbirth. Mothers with postpartum depression may experience symptoms that may be overwhelming.  In addition to the symptoms listed below, women with this condition may be unable to care for their baby, their family, or themselves. Postpartum depression symptoms include: 

  • Low mood and sadness
  • Irritability, anxiety, and restlessness
  • Appetite changes
  • Confusion and lack of concentration
  • Dizziness and ticks
  • Experiencing anger or rage
  • Losing interest in activities that are usually enjoyable
  • Suffering from actual physical pain (headaches, muscular, and stomach problems)

A postpartum depression alert occurs when you are experiencing any of these symptoms for more than two weeks or if your symptoms get worse rather than better. Postpartum depression is a serious matter, so you should seek the help of your healthcare provider.

Is it really postpartum depression?

While postpartum depression is certainly alarming, it affects less than 1 out of 10 moms. So, before you self-diagnose yourself, make sure you’re not experiencing plain Baby blues or simply sleep deprivation. 

Here are four clues that can help you tell the difference:

  • Onset:  Whereas Baby blues typically start right after the baby’s delivery, postpartum depression usually begins a bit later, most frequently after the first month and up to 12 months after birth. 
  • Duration: Baby blues typically last between one to three weeks. As the new mother’s hormones balance out and her baby’s schedule gets more manageable, Baby blues tend to diminish and slowly disappear. If, in contrast, the symptoms last longer and become worse, it may be time to call a professional.
  • Intensity: Baby blues are just that. Mom feels blue, is weepy, sensitive, confused, and irritable, but she’s still fully engaged with her little one and her life. Postpartum depression symptoms are much more intense and women experiencing this condition will feel overwhelmed and hopeless. 
  • Resolution: As a new mom, or almost any time you miss many hours of sleep, you can expect to feel cranky and blue. A mom with simple sleep deprivation will feel better if someone helps her out and gives her the time to catch a good, long nap or a full- night sleep. However, if resting doesn’t help you feel better and you’re past the 2-3 week Baby blues period, make sure to seek professional help.

So, what can I do?

Experts recommend that new moms discard unrealistic expectations of how motherhood should look and feel like. A pragmatic approach to your baby’s care and your own self-care works best:

  • First of all, get your zzz’s. When you put your little one down for a nap, do the same yourself.   Even short naps throughout the day can help you make up for lost sleep during the nighttime hours. 
  • Prioritize your well-being and rest, rather than feeling pressured to cook, clean, decorate, or entertain. 
  • Accept (or ask) for help from family, friends, and your partner. They are focused on you and your new baby, so enjoy this time and attention. Take into account that they are probably delighted to help out with your adorable, sweet bundle of joy.

If despite all of the above tips, you feel deep sadness, hopelessness, or anxiety that doesn’t go away, you may be experiencing postpartum depression. In that case, don’t hesitate to consult a health specialist. A timely approach has excellent expectations for a short-term recovery.

Most of all, be it Baby blues, sleep deprivation or outright postpartum depression, don’t be discouraged! Your mom, your grandmother, and generations of moms throughout the ages have dealt with postpartum challenges and all of us are a testament to their success.

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