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What’s the difference between “baby blues” and postpartum depression?

Many women find they feel sad, moody or easily upset shortly after giving birth. While these negative emotions may not be what some mothers were expecting to feel, they are very common and are known as “baby blues.”

Symptoms of baby blues include:

  • weepiness
  • sadness
  • anxiety
  • irritability or impatience
  • mood swings
  • fatigue
  • crying for no reason

While many of these symptoms are shared with depression, baby blues are different from postpartum depression.

One key difference is that baby blues are transient, explains Dr. Cindy-Lee Dennis, senior scientist at the Women’s College Research Institute and Shirley Brown Chair in Women’s Mental Health Research at Women’s College Hospital. “While many mothers will experience them, they generally resolve on their own, do not require treatment and occur early in the postpartum period – within the first couple of weeks.”

Common conditions

Baby blues may affect up to 80 per cent of mothers. Postpartum depression is less common, but more serious. A key difference is that symptoms of postpartum depression continue, while baby blues usually go away within a few days to a couple of weeks.

“Postpartum depression is a depressive episode that occurs within the first year postpartum, but for the majority of mothers it will develop within the first 12 weeks,” Dr. Dennis says, adding that postpartum depression affects about 13 per cent of mothers.

Although baby blues and postpartum depression are different conditions, one can be a risk factor the other. A meta-analysis (a systematic review of existing research) involving 84 studies suggests that significant baby blues that don’t resolve is a risk factor for developing postpartum depression.

Treatment

Postpartum depression is a serious condition that in most cases will require some form of treatment, Dr. Dennis says.

“Treatment depends on severity. For mothers with mild depressive symptomatology, joining a mothers’ group or support from a public health nurse can be useful,” she explains. “For mothers with moderate postpartum depression, common treatment includes some form of psychotherapy such as interpersonal psychotherapy or cognitive behavioural therapy, and sometimes mothers require antidepressant medication. For those who are severely depressed, antidepressant medication is a very good treatment option.”

Family impact

It’s important to treat postpartum depression not only for the mother’s health, but also because it can have a negative effect on her relationship with her baby, and on the baby’s behavioural, social and cognitive development. It can also affect her partner and their relationship. When a new mother is depressed, it increases the risk that her partner will also develop depression.

“We target postpartum depression because it not only impacts the mother but the whole family,” Dr. Dennis says. “Postpartum depression is a family affair.”

This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: Feb. 14, 2014

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