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A Guide to Perinatal Mood Disorders

Parenthood is a significant change to daily life, one that can seriously impact the emotional health of new mothers and fathers. Perinatal mood disorders — the inclusive term for a number of conditions that affect parents after the birth of a new child — impact as many as 30 percent of all new moms. (New fathers are not immune either: in recent Northwestern Medicine studies on fatherhood, scientists noted a rise in postnatal depression in new dads.)

Perinatal mood disorders tend to develop in the first few months after childbirth, but can appear any time in the first two years. While there is no specific cause, some risk factors include sleep deprivation, colicky babies, isolation, hormonal changes and stressful events around the time of birth.

It’s worth noting that after the birth of a child, mood swings alone are not cause for serious concern, nor are the “baby blues” — a brief, temporary moodiness that passes on its own within two weeks and affects nearly 80 percent of new mothers.

Perinatal mood disorders include:

  • Pregnancy or Postpartum Depression (PPD): Postpartum depression is the most well-known perinatal mood disorder. It’s characterized by feelings of anger, sadness, irritability and guilt as well as a lack of interest in the baby, changes in eating and sleeping habits, trouble concentrating and thoughts of hopelessness.
  • Pregnancy or Postpartum Anxiety: With postpartum anxiety, women experience extreme worries and fears, usually over the safety of the baby. This may take the form of panic attacks and can include shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, a feeling of losing control, numbness and tingling.
  • Pregnancy or Postpartum Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (PPOCD): As the name suggests, women with PPOCD experience both obsessions (repetitive, upsetting thoughts or mental images) and compulsions (the need to do certain things to reduce anxiety). Mothers tend to find these thoughts scary and unusual, and most are unlikely to act on them.
  • Postpartum Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): A frightening or traumatic birth may cause postpartum PTSD, in which mothers relive flashbacks with feelings of anxiety and feel the need to avoid things related to the event.
  • Postpartum Psychosis: Mothers suffering from postpartum psychosis will experience hallucinations (images or voices that are not actually present). This may cause them to believe things that aren’t true or distrust those around them as well as have periods of confusion, memory loss and mania. This is the most severe perinatal mood disorder and can be dangerous. If you or someone you know appears to be suffering from postpartum psychosis, seek professional help immediately.

Are You Suffering From a Perinatal Mood Disorder?

If you answer yes to any of the following questions, you should talk with a healthcare professional about perinatal mood disorders.

  • Are you feeling sad or depressed?
  • Do you feel more irritable or angry with those around you?
  • Are you having difficulty bonding with your baby?
  • Do you feel anxious or panicky?
  • Are you having problems eating or sleeping?
  • Do you have troubling thoughts that you can’t get out of your mind?
  • Do you feel as if you are “out of control” or “going crazy”?
  • Do you feel like you never should have become a mother?
  • Are you worried that you might hurt your baby or yourself?

How to Get Help

The first step to treating a perinatal mood disorder is recognizing that the pain is due to a treatable illness – understanding that fact can provide tremendous relief and hope. Similarly, it’s important that the family understands that no one is to blame for the situation and they are not alone. Treatment can include individual or family therapy, support groups and sometimes medication. It’s important that perinatal mood disorders are addressed, not only because they can lead to chronic mood disorders, marital trouble or child neglect, but also because they can damage the parent-child bond at a sensitive time.