Understanding Postpartum Disorder

Postpartum disorder is a condition common among women who have just given birth. An estimated 12.5% (or about 800,000) percent of all postpartum women suffer from postpartum disorder each year.

What is postpartum disorder?

Postpartum disorder refers to the physical, emotional and behavioral changes which women who have just given birth experience. Postpartum disorder cases vary greatly. Some women experience fairly mild symptoms of "baby blues", while some suffer severe symptoms of this condition, such as postpartum depression. In extreme cases, some mothers suffer from postpartum psychosis. This is a rare but severe and crippling illness.

Postpartum disorders and their symptoms

"Baby Blues"

The mildest form of postpartum disorder is commonly referred to as "baby blues". About 40-85 percent of women suffer from this.

Symptoms usually occur within the first 10 days of postpartum. The peak is sometime around the third to fifth day. Symptoms include depressed mood, anxiety, excessive worry, irritability, confusion, crying spells, sleep and eating disturbances and lack of feeling for the newborn. Symptoms, though distressing can be quickly resolved within 24-72 hours.

Postpartum depression

Postpartum depression occurs in 10-15 percent of all deliveries. The statistics are higher for adolescent deliveries, about 26-32 percent. Postpartum depression often starts 4 weeks after delivery but can occur months later.

Symptoms must be present for two weeks and must affect the mother’s ability to function to be diagnosed as postpartum depression. Majority of postpartum depression patients still suffer from the condition 6 months after it started. When left untreated, 25 percent of patients are still depressed a year later.

Reported symptoms for postpartum depression include:

  • depressed mood for most of the day, almost everyday.
  • loss of interest in activities that you once enjoyed.
  • feelings of hopelessness and despair.
  • thoughts of suicide or infanticide.
  • fears of harming the baby.
  • no concern or too much concern for the baby.
  • feelings of inadequacy, guilt and worthlessness.
  • poor concentration and impaired memory.
  • strange thoughts.
  • hallucinations and nightmares.
  • panic attacks.
  • agitation or lethargy.

Events that make women more likely to experience postpartum depression are:

Earlier episode of postpartum depression. It has been found that one incidence of postpartum depression can increase chances of having another by up to 70 percent.

Depression that is unrelated to pregnancy. A prior incidence of depression may increase the risk by 30 percent.

Sever PMS (postmenstrual syndrome).

Stressful living conditions (marital, family, work financial conditions).

Uncertain feelings about pregnancy; or unwanted pregnancy.

Postpartum Psychosis

Postpartum psychosis is quite rare. It occurs in 1-2 out of every 1000 deliveries. Symptoms of postpartum psychosis usually occur within the first 4 weeks postpartum, but can start anytime up to 90 days after delivery.

Postpartum psychosis is characterized by a rapid and severe onset. Women who experience this are severely impaired. They usually suffer from delusions and hallucination. Women who suffer from postpartum psychosis are at high risk for suicide and/or infanticide.

Symptoms for postpartum psychosis include:

  • refusal to eat.
  • frenzied or agitated energy and activity.
  • incoherence.
  • loss of memory and extreme confusion.
  • bizarre hallucinations.
  • irrational behavior.
  • paranoia

Birth-related post traumatic stress disorder

Birth-related post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is also rare among postpartum women. Birth-related post traumatic stress disorder involves two elements: First, witnessing or experiencing an occurrence which involved actual or threatened danger to the self or to others. Second, responding with intense fear, helplessness or horror.

Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • obsessive thoughts about the birth.
  • feelings of panic when near the site or birth.
  • feelings or numbness or detachment.
  • disturbing memories of the birth experience.
  • nightmares and flashbacks.
  • sadness, fearfulness, anxiety and/or irritability.

Causes of Postpartum Disorder

Hormonal Changes – after giving birth, a woman goes through enormous hormonal fluctuation levels. Fluctuations such as decreased serotonin levels may contribute to the development of postpartum disorders.

Situational risk – major changes cause a huge amount of stress that can result in depression. Childbirth is a major life change and transition. If a woman experiences another life-changing event at the same time as childbirth, she may be more likely to develop postpartum disorders than otherwise.

Life stresses – excessive stress at work plus stress from the knowledge that you’ll be a mom can cause severe emotional strain that could lead to postpartum disorder. The mother-to-be’s relationship with the baby’s father can also heighten the risk of developing postpartum disorders. Likewise, ambivalent feelings about the pregnancy can also affect a woman’s risk of developing postpartum disorder.


Like other types of depression, postpartum disorder is treated with antidepressant medications, psychotherapy and group support participation, or a combination of these.

Antidepressant medications help alleviate the symptoms of postpartum disorder. It should be combined with counseling with a therapist who is trained in issues about childbirth.