The Myths and Misconceptions of Postpartum Depression

Postpartum Depression (PPD) is a subset of depressive symptoms that develops for about 10-15% of women following the birth of a child.  These numbers demonstrate that PPD is greater than three times more common than breast cancer.  This makes PPD the most common complication of childbirth. 

Symptoms can develop up to a year after the birth of a child, making an accurate diagnosis and treatment of PPD an infrequent occurrence for the vast majority of women.  There is a large amount of confusion and misconception about postpartum depression.  Unfortunately, this misconception also affects the medical professionals expected to treat PPD.  Having a solid understanding of the facts can help better determine if you or someone in your life might be experiencing PPD.  If any of the following facts are close to your own experience or you notice any of these symptoms in someone you care about, you should consider seeking help from a mental health provider in the form of therapy and/or medication management. The following are the most common myths about PPD, followed by the facts behind the misconception.

1.        All new mothers are depressed and fatigued after childbirth, so it’s normal.

  • All new mothers do experience a variety of emotions, which can be fueled by exhaustion and a feeling of overwhelm.  When these symptoms are lasting longer than two weeks and are beginning to interfere with your functioning, you might be experiencing PPD. 

2.       PPD only occurs immediately after your child is born and if it doesn’t, you won’t get it.

  • Most women tend to recognize their symptoms within the first three to fourth months following childbirth.   However, symptoms can develop any time within the first year of your child’s life. 

3.       PPD will go away on its own, especially if you are just more positive or get more sleep.

  • PPD is not a minor issue that only requires an ‘attitude adjustment.’  PPD is very responsive to treatment via psychotherapy and/or medication management.  It is a serious mental health condition that deserves help.   The “baby blues” is a more short-lived feeling of sadness following the birth of your child that will only last about four weeks.  If your symptoms are more intense or lasting longer, you are likely experiencing PPD.  Untreated PPD can continue into a more chronic form of depression if it is left untreated.  This makes it important to seek help when you begin to notice significant symptoms and impairment in your abilities. 

4.       Women who experience PPD hurt their baby.

  • Women with PPD are not bad mothers and do not harm or hurt their children, contrary to what the media may report.  Some women who experience PPD may have suicidal thoughts about hurting themselves and some may even have passive thoughts about hurting their baby.  However, the action of hurting themselves is typically only followed through on when the depression is severe.  A number of moms experiencing PPD experience passive suicidal thoughts, but do not ever consider a plan or going through with the action.  The same is true for women who have thoughts of hurting their child; although they may have these thoughts, that does not mean they will be followed through on.  When a mother does hurt or kill her child, what is likely occurring is postpartum psychosis.  These are two different conditions.  One in eight women will experience PPD, one in one thousand women will experience postpartum psychosis.

5.       Women with PPD look depressed, you’ll know her when you see her.

  • Contrary to popular belief, women with PPD are not always sad, nor are they constantly crying.   Although this may be the case for some, typical symptoms include:  low mood, prominent anxiety, irritability, repetitive worries, disrupted sleep, feeling overwhelmed by large and small things, and experiencing guilt for not enjoying their motherhood as society says they should.  Just like any other mental health concern, presentation of PPD is very individualized and will look different across mothers.  Most women who experience PPD are still able to function in their roles of mother, wife, and/or employee, but suffer greatly on the inside.

6.       PPD is your fault, the result of something you did or did not do, or the environment you live in.

  • PPD is not something to blame yourself for.  It is not an experience that you, or anyone, would choose to have.  Hormone shifts, such as estrogen and progesterone, are one of the primary reasons for PPD.   You do not have control over these shifts.  Do not dismiss the symptoms because they are real and can improve with professional help.

7.       Nursing mothers can’t take antidepressants.

  • Research shows that antidepressants present a very minor risk to the health of your baby.  If you need one, take one.  Your doctor will know the medications that are least likely to cause harm to your baby.  Of the antidepressants, SSRIs, like Zoloft, are considered to be the safest for women who are breastfeeding.

8.       If you’ve never been depressed before, you won’t experience PPD.

  • If you have previously suffered from depression there is a higher chance that you might experience PPD, when compared to the average person.  This is likely because of the associated hormone fluctuations.  If your body has already experienced those types of fluctuations in the past, it possibly will again.  However, that does not mean that if you have, you will, or if you’ve never experienced depression prior, you are immune to PPD.  All new mothers run a potential risk.

The take-home message is that if you are noticing symptoms of PPD, seek treatment.  These symptoms can cause serious suffering and your mental health deserves immediate attention. 

Authored by:  Kaitlan Gibbons, PsyD