Baby blues vs. postpartum depression: What you need to know

Caring for a new baby is an exciting time that can feel like a whirlwind with sleepless nights, new experiences and lots of sweet cuddles — but it can also be extremely challenging. 

Many of these challenges are normal, but they can create uneasy feelings in a new mother. Mood swings, crying spells and anxiety are usually considered part of “baby blues” which is quite common— affecting up to 80 percent of new moms. These feelings are usually mild and temporary — and will often go away on their own after a week or two. 

However, for some new mothers — about 1 in 9 — these feelings can be intense and may interfere with a mother’s ability to care for herself or her family. This is what’s known as postpartum depression. It’s a serious condition, but it can be treated — and most importantly, it’s nothing to be ashamed about. Any mother with this condition should not feel like a “bad mom.” 

Why does postpartum depression occur?

There is no single cause. After giving birth, moms are generally getting less sleep. Their hormone levels of estrogen and progesterone — which are important during pregnancy — are also dropping, which may have a profound effect on their mood. They may also be adapting to a vastly different routine than before the baby was born, which can affect their mental state. The condition can happen before or after a child’s birth but typically occurs between a week and a month following delivery.

What are the symptoms?

Although symptoms may vary, what makes postpartum depression different from baby blues is that it affects a woman’s daily life and it doesn’t go away. If left untreated, it may last several weeks or months. Some of the symptoms may include:

  • Self-doubt about caring for the baby
  • Thoughts about hurting herself or the child
  • Crying often without a recognizable cause
  • Too much food — or not enough
  • Losing interest in things that were once enjoyable
  • Experiencing intense anger
  • Feeling like there’s no emotional attachment to the baby

How to seek help

These symptoms may create a deep sense of shame that a new mom is somehow failing as a parent. This may make it difficult for her to seek help.

Only a health care professional can give a diagnosis and make a full determination whether it’s baby blues, postpartum depression or something else entirely. If they feel postpartum depression is present, treatment options might include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help recognize and alter negative thoughts or behaviors
  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT) to help understand challenging personal relationships
  • Antidepressant medications
  • Or a combination of these treatments

While generally safe, a health care professional can also help address any concerns about breastfeeding while on medication.

Becoming a new mom can be overwhelming. Having the right support and care can help it feel less isolating. If you feel like you have any mental health concerns, like postpartum depression, or you know someone who may be struggling, there are professionals who can help, without judgment. Don’t wait to talk to a health care provider to start the conversation.

Sign up to get the latest news from the UnitedHealthcare Newsroom