You’ve just had a baby, and maybe a part of you is delighted. But another part of you, perhaps a large part, doesn’t feel happy at all. You might feel uninterested in caring for your baby or feel hopeless about being a good mother. Maybe you even have thoughts about running away or hurting yourself.
You could be experiencing postpartum depression.
Postpartum depression is a serious and painful mental health condition that affects around 1 in 7 new parents. It mostly affects mothers, but it can affect fathers and other types of new parents as well.
Unfortunately, if you do have postpartum depression, it isn’t likely to fade with time. In this article, we’ll discuss how long you can expect symptoms of postpartum depression to last, as well as the importance of getting early treatment.
When does postpartum depression usually start?
It’s common for new mothers (and even non-birthing parents) to get the “baby blues.” This is a common experience of sadness, irritability, and fatigue that up to 80% of women go through after having a baby. The baby blues can start immediately after giving birth.
But postpartum depression is very different from the baby blues. It can feel similar at first. Both conditions can cause tearfulness, irritability, and exhaustion.
Because of this, many new mothers don’t realize they may have postpartum depression until a week or more after giving birth. Earlier in the postpartum period, you might think your symptoms are simply a reflection of the baby blues, which almost everyone goes through after giving birth. When the symptoms don’t go away, you may start to realize there is something deeper going on.
Postpartum depression is diagnosed as a major depressive episode with peripartum onset. Since we usually refer to it as postpartum depression, it’s often incorrectly assumed that this condition only affects people after they’ve given birth. But plenty of people start to experience depression while they’re still pregnant.
Typically, symptoms of postpartum depression come on around 4 to 6 weeks after having a baby. But some people start getting symptoms long before giving birth, and others don’t get symptoms until up to a year after.
If you’re pregnant (in any trimester) or have had a baby within the past year, then what you’re going through could be postpartum depression. It’s important to get treatment no matter where you are in this time frame.
How long does postpartum depression last?
Symptoms of postpartum depression can affect you for anywhere between several months to many years.
A research study from 2020 followed a large sample of women who experienced postpartum depression. The researchers measured these women’s symptoms at four months, one year, two years, and three years after giving birth.
Most of them — around 75% — had symptoms that started low and remained low over time. They didn’t get better with time, but their symptoms never reached a severe level.
Around 13% of the women studied experienced moderate symptoms of postpartum depression that gradually decreased over time. A smaller group, around 8% of the participants, had symptoms that started low but got worse with time.
Lastly, 5% of the women had severe symptoms of postpartum depression that started high and stayed high, even after years had passed.
A few factors were linked to a higher likelihood of symptoms that stayed high over time. For example, new mothers with gestational diabetes were more likely to experience postpartum depression that didn’t go away for years. Women who’d been previously diagnosed with a mood disorder were also found to be at high risk.
We need more research to be able to definitively say how long postpartum depression lasts. But this study has provided us with important information. It tells us that, for many women, postpartum depression isn’t likely to go away over time. It can last for years without improving. For most new mothers, the only way out is treatment.
Symptoms of postpartum depression
People who have postpartum depression share symptoms with those with major depressive disorder. The main difference between the two is that for people with postpartum depression, their symptoms come on during the perinatal period. The symptoms of a depressive episode (whether or not it happens in pregnancy/postpartum) are:
- Sad, empty, or irritable mood almost all the time
- Loss of interest in activities that you used to enjoy
- Changes in your sleep patterns (sleeping too little or too much) that can’t be attributed to new caretaking duties
- Slow movements or thought processes
- Fatigue that can’t be attributed to the physical effects of childbirth or a lack of sleep due to new caretaking duties
- Changes in appetite that cause significant weight gain or loss
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
On top of this, postpartum depression has other unique signs and symptoms. People with postpartum depression often:
- Have a hard time bonding with their baby
- Having negative thoughts about their baby or about their ability to parent their baby
- Feel hopeless about being a good parent
- Have unreasonable feelings of guilt or worthlessness about parenthood
- Crying a lot more than usual
- Feeling unreasonably irritable or angry
- Have thoughts about hurting their baby or themselves
Other mental health conditions that can affect new parents include postpartum anxiety, postpartum psychosis, and postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
80% of new mothers get the baby blues, but not all of them end up having postpartum depression. This leaves many people wondering, what makes some people get postpartum depression and not others? And is it possible to lessen my chances that my baby blues will progress into something more serious?
Scientists haven’t nailed down a single cause for postpartum depression. Research shows that, like most health conditions, there are several causes  that could increase your risk of developing postpartum depression after having a baby.
Most instances of postpartum depression are caused by a combination of a few different factors. The factors include both biological and environmental factors; in other words, both “nature” and “nurture” play a role.
Hormonal changes can play a significant factor in both the baby blues and postpartum depression. After giving birth, mothers experience a big drop in hormones like estrogen and progesterone. These hormonal changes, including other changes that may be caused by the thyroid, can cause some symptoms of depression, including fatigue and depressed mood.
For most people, hormones go back to normal within 1 or 2 days of giving birth. But especially if you’re already at high risk of postpartum depression, these big hormonal imbalances could trigger a depressive episode.
Changes in body
Biological changes in the body could play a role in other ways as well. New mothers often describe feeling like their body is no longer their own. Their body shape or size may have changed during their pregnancy, and the stress of new parenthood often prevents them from exercising to lose the extra weight.
The changes in their bodies often make new mothers feel less attractive or cause them to lose their self-esteem. This could definitely contribute to postpartum depression for some people.
Stress of parenthood
The stress of having a new baby plays a role for most new mothers with postpartum depression as well. For example, most new parents know that in the first few months of having a baby, it’s difficult to get restful sleep. Sleep deprivation has been repeatedly linked to a higher likelihood of depression, so it makes sense that new parents would sometimes experience depression during this time.
Financial worries, difficulties in the marital relationship, and other lifestyle changes can also be very stressful. All of these environmental factors combined can contribute to postpartum depression for new parents.
Other risk factors
Some of the other factors that have been found, in research, to heighten the likelihood of postpartum depression include:
- Having a history of depression, if you’ve experienced a depressive episode before, then you are more likely to get postpartum depression.
- Having a family history of postpartum depression or other mood disorders, all types of depression, including postpartum depression, have a genetic component. People who have a close relative with depression or another mood disorder may be more likely to get postpartum depression.
- Age; the younger you are, the more likely you are to get postpartum depression.
- The number of children; people who already have children before giving birth may be more likely to get postpartum depression. The more children you have, the more likely you are to get this condition.
- Multiparity; people who have twins or triplets are more likely to be depressed than people with single births.
- If your baby has special needs or other health concerns, then then your risk of having postpartum depression is higher than parents whose children have no health problems.
- Being ambivalent about pregnancy or parenthood; If you aren’t completely sure that you want to have a baby, then you may be at higher risk for postpartum depression.
- Lack of social support; people who don’t have others around them whom they can count on in times of stress are more vulnerable to postpartum depression.
- Marital conflict; having conflict within your relationship can cause a great deal of stress, which can heighten your risk for all types of depression. Being a victim of domestic violence puts women at an even higher risk.
- Smoking; some reports state that smokers have a higher chance of developing postpartum depression.
The most important thing to know is that getting postpartum depression is not your fault. Nor does it, in any way, indicate that you are a bad parent.
Like most mental health conditions, postpartum depression doesn’t discriminate. Any new parent can get it, and it’s much more common than people realize. If you’re living with this condition, you’re not alone.
Can I shorten the length of postpartum depression?
The good news is that even if you have (or are at risk for) postpartum depression, there is something you can do to make it last for as short of a time as possible: get professional mental health treatment.
Studies show that postpartum depression isn’t likely to go away on its own. In fact, it could even get worse, not better, over time. Without treatment, symptoms could stick around for years.
The first step to getting treatment is to get the right diagnosis. If your OB-GYN hasn’t offered it already, ask for a depression screening at every postnatal appointment. Symptoms usually come on in the first few weeks, but some mothers don’t start experiencing postpartum depression until a year or more after giving birth.
If you notice any symptoms of postpartum depression, tell your healthcare provider right away. They can help connect you with the right treatment option for you.
The Center • A Place of HOPE is recognized as a Top 10 Facility in the U.S. for the treatment of depression. We use a unique Whole Person Care approach that takes into account every aspect of who you are: a new mother or parent, a friend, a professional, and everything in between. We want to know about what’s important to you.
If you’ve recently had a baby and you’re not sure whether you’re experiencing depression, take our depression test to start getting some answers.
You can also get in touch with our admissions team to get more information about our top-rated treatment program for depression.