The “Baby Blues” vs. Postpartum Depression: Understanding Postnatal Emotions
The postpartum period can be an emotionally fraught time. It can come with a flood of intense feelings: good, bad, and mixed. If you’re feeling sad, angry, stressed, or have other negative emotions, you may start to wonder whether you're dealing with what’s referred to as the baby blues or whether you could be experiencing postpartum depression.
Keeping a close eye on your emotions can help you find ways to manage them—and get help when you need it—so you can be the parent you want to be. Here’s what you need to know about the difference between the baby blues and postpartum depression and how to handle your postnatal emotions.
What Are the Baby Blues?
The baby blues are feelings of intense emotional highs and lows that commonly are experienced in the days and weeks after having a baby. You may go from crying tears of joy and happiness to tears of fear and uncertainty at the drop of a hat.
The baby blues can leave you feeling:
The baby blues can also affect your ability to concentrate or make decisions, as well as your desire to eat and sleep. You may question whether you can handle parenthood.
What Causes the Baby Blues?
The baby blues can be caused by several factors. “That initial rush of emotion is tied to the hormone levels dropping right after birth,” explains Jessie Everts, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist, Twill clinical liaison, and author of the book Brave New Mom.
“The psychological impact of becoming a parent is another piece of it,” Everts says. And that’s not to mention the fatigue and sleep deprivation that comes along with taking care of a newborn, all while you’re healing from childbirth itself.
You’re not to blame for these feelings. They’re not an indicator that you’re doing something wrong. “Even if you were planning to have the baby and were excited to, it's still such a major life event that it causes a lot of emotions,” Everts says.
Who Gets the Baby Blues, and When?
According to the March of Dimes, the baby blues are very common, affecting up to 80% of new parents, regardless of factors like age, race, culture, income, or education level.
These feelings can start within the first two to three days after the baby is born and can last for up to two weeks. After that, the baby blues typically resolve on their own without any intervention.
What Is Postpartum Depression (PPD)?
Postpartum depression is a serious mental illness that affects behavior as well as mental and physical health, affecting about 1 in 7 birthing people.
Many of the symptoms of the baby blues are also symptoms of postpartum depression: feelings of sadness, indifference, and anxiety, as well as changes in appetite, energy levels, and sleep habits. So, it’s common to wonder how to tell the difference between the baby blues and PPD.
“The timing is an important thing,” says Veerle Bergink, M.D., director of Mount Sinai Women’s Mental Health Program in New York City. Postpartum depression is when these feelings persist for longer than two weeks. “If it lasts for weeks, then it’s not the baby blues,” she adds.
There are other signs of postpartum depression, too, including how much and how long the feelings affect you.
Having a newborn is extremely hard and can be overwhelming. “Low moments are definitely part of that,” Bergink explains. “But if you feel low each day, every day, all day, then it’s a completely different story.” This may be a sign of postpartum depression.
Postpartum depression can also affect your ability to connect with your newborn. “If you struggle to have feelings towards your newborn, that can also be a sign that you’re depressed,” Bergink says. Other signs of PPD include feeling disinterested in the baby, not wanting to be left alone with the baby, and fearing that you won’t be a good parent.
It’s possible to even have thoughts about hurting the baby—or yourself. If you do, it’s important to seek emergency care. Postpartum Support International offers its own PSI HelpLine and local resources. If you’re having thoughts of death or suicide, immediate help is available 24/7 at the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. You can get connected by calling 988 or by chatting with counselors online.
What to Do If You Think You Might Have PPD?
If low mood or other negative feelings persist longer than two weeks after childbirth, reach out for help. Talking to your doctor or your baby’s pediatrician is a good place to start.
“People who have given birth shouldn’t worry when they first experience those feelings, because it probably is the baby blues,” Everts says. “But notice and pay attention to it,” she cautions, adding that it’s time to seek help “if it lasts longer than that two-week period, or if it's really impacting you much more than you think it should.”
Many postpartum parents feel embarrassed, ashamed, or guilty when they feel these negative emotions at a time when they’re supposed to be filled with love and joy. They may also worry about being viewed as a bad parent. But these feelings shouldn’t stop you from seeking help.
“It's not something that's not okay to talk about,” Everts says, emphasizing the importance of opening up about how you’re feeling with close friends and family. “It's helpful to have partners and support people [who] also know both about the baby blues and about postpartum depression so that they can be checking in.”
Therapy as Treatment for Postpartum Depression
Consider also speaking with a therapist. “There are lots of therapists like myself who are specially trained in perinatal mental health,” Everts says, “who really can help you talk through it, and discuss medications, and figure out what the best course of action is for somebody who might have postpartum depression.”
Your doctor may be able to recommend a local therapist who can help. You can also search the PSI provider directory to find one near you.
Postpartum depression can last for months or even years, though the sooner you seek help, the better. “It's certainly easier to resolve when you have help and support than if you're trying to wait it out on your own,” Everts says.
Steps to Manage Low Mood During the Postpartum Period
Aside from talk therapy and potential treatments that can help, self-care plays an important role in the postpartum period. You’ll be extremely busy taking care of a baby, but do your best to prioritize your physical and mental health so you’re ready to meet the demands of parenthood. It’s important to:
- Establish a routine. “Find a rhythm in your day,” advises Bergink. “Get out of bed, take a shower, and try to feed the baby at regular times to get into a rhythm.”
- Spend time outside. “Go out with your baby, even during the wintertime,” adds Bergink. Taking a walk around the neighborhood not only helps you get moving but also exposes your baby to natural daylight, which can help establish a regular circadian rhythm.
- Eat a nutritious diet. Following healthy eating habits and staying hydrated are beneficial for your overall physical and mental health, but they’re especially important if you breastfeed or chestfeed, as it takes up a lot of energy, Bergink says.
- Try to get some sleep. Being responsible for all the nighttime feedings can take a toll on some parents. If you have a partner, let them do an overnight feeding so you can get some extra sleep; being able to take a break can do wonders for your mental health.
- Practice self-compassion. “Often, some negative thinking is reflected in those feelings of depression—‘I'm not good at this,’ or ‘It's not going to get better,’ ‘I'm not going to feel connected to my baby,’ or those kinds of thoughts,” Everts says. “Practicing some self-compassion or kindness toward yourself is really helpful.”
- Let go of the little things. “Don’t be too much of a perfectionist in how things should be,” emphasizes Bergink. The dishes can wait. The laundry will still be there tomorrow. “The most important thing is that you’re taking care of yourself and your baby.”
“Make sure you’re taking time for these kinds of self-care, even though it feels like there’s not enough time with a baby,” Everts says. “It’s so critically important for parents’ mental health.”
Resources That Can Help
Postpartum Support International (PSI) is the go-to resource for information on perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. It also offers a variety of services, such as:
“PSI is a great place to even just look around and kind of see what's available, and if you're wondering about your symptoms, to get some more information,” Everts says.
Local support groups can also help you talk through your emotions and help you feel supported during the postpartum period. Ask your doctor or call the hospital or birthing center where you delivered to see whether there’s a postpartum support group that they host or recommend. Local community centers and clinics may offer support groups, as well.
Family and friends may be sources of support, too—don’t discount the help you can get from your inner circle. You may feel like there’s a lot on your plate right now that you must take care of yourself because you’re the birthing parent. But when your friends or family members offer help, take them up on it.
“It takes a village to raise a child,” Bergink says. “It makes it all easier if you feel that you’re in this together.”
Emergency hotlines are available, as well. If at any time you feel as if you’re in crisis or you need to talk to someone right away, you should text or call a crisis counselor. Both these crisis lines are available 24/7:
- National Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 800-273-8255
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